In defence of the bayonet: cold steel always has the psychological edge

Tom Coghlan: Analysis
“They don’t like it up ’em . . .”

It is the rallying cry of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army — and it is still relevant today, according to the Ministry of Defence.

“Our Service personnel are trained to use a bayonet as part of their mandatory basic training. This is an essential part of close-combat training which prepares them for eventualities they may face in theatre,” says a spokesman for the ministry.

The trend in the recent history of warfare has been towards picking the opponent off long before “cold steel” might become necessary, but British troops have been forced to resort to the use of bayonets in the not-too-distant past.

Bayonets were fixed and used in the Falklands and the Army conducted its most recent bayonet charge in Iraq in 2004, when 20 soldiers of the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment attacked 100 insurgents in the Battle of Danny Boy, a fierce fight at a British checkpoint of the same name. Last year Lieutenant James Adamson was awarded a Military Cross for taking on two Taleban fighters in Afghanistan with the bayonet attached to his SA80 rifle.

British Forces now carry a greater variety of weapons, such as light support machineguns, heavy machineguns, snipers’ rifles and SA80s with underslung grenade launchers that cannot be fitted with a bayonet. However, serving soldiers still assert that a bayonet has a powerful psychological effect on the user and the potential foe, and in certain circumstances the bayonet can save a soldier’s life.

“Closing with the enemy is a massively psychological act,” says Colonel Stuart Tootal, who commanded a parachute battalion in Helmand province.

“Fixing bayonets bolsters the will to close with and kill an enemy and seeing soldiers with bayonets fixed has a psychological effect.

“I don’t criticise the US Army for choosing to focus on other weapons but, personally, while I recognise that the bayonet will be used less often, I wouldn’t give it up.”

7 thoughts on “In defence of the bayonet: cold steel always has the psychological edge

  1. From The Sunday Times, October 28, 2007

    Heat, dust and bayonet charges: life on the Afghan front line

    Michael Smith

    BEHIND-the-scenes pictures of British troops in Afghanistan released this weekend show how soldiers on patrol against the Taliban cope with the exhausting conditions of their life at the front and fill the time in-between by trying to make themselves comfortable in their crowded, semi-derelict quarters.

    They show every aspect of daily life, from Brigadier John Lorimer, the British commander, plotting military operations with his Afghan counterparts, to an army doctor treating a small Afghan child with stomach ache.

    The pictures were taken by Sergeant Will Craig, an army photographer who lived and worked with the fighting men for several months.

    Craig followed 12 Mechanised Brigade as it fought pitched battles with Taliban insurgents while trying to win the hearts and minds of local Afghans.

    It was bloody fighting, often at the point of a bayonet, that left 29 men dead and almost 100 wounded, more than 20 of them seriously. The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters lost nine men, as did the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment.

    As the last of Lorimer’s men returned to Britain last week he praised their efforts. “The fighting was tough and the terrain and climatic conditions made it even tougher,” he said. “The temperature hit 50 degrees during the peak of the brutal summer months.

    The enemy was cunning, determined and ruthless. However, every time we closed with the enemy, we beat him – and beat him well.”

    In some of the pictures, men of the Grenadier Guards, who saw five colleagues killed in Afghanistan, go out on patrol in Garmsir.

    They are shown closing with the Taliban with fixed bayonets and mortaring them as they attempt to drive them out of the town.

    The troops are also shown in their makeshift barracks, a ramshackle former agricultural college known as Forward Operations Base Delhi, where meals are cooked on mess tins over small tins stoves fuelled by hexamine firelighters. One soldier takes time to shave his head.

    An army medic is shown inspecting a young Afghan boy brought to the camp gates by his elder brother with a stomach ache. An interpreter stands alongside, translating the doctor’s diagnosis that the child simply needs more fluids.

    Grenadiers who have been dropped off by a Chinook helicopter are then shown orienting themselves in the cloud of dust thrown up as it departs to pick up more troops.

    Read Mick Smith’s defence blog at


  2. From The Times, March 18, 2010

    US Army thrusts bayonet aside after centuries of faithful service

    Michael Evans, Pentagon Correspondent

    It was a decisive weapon on America’s Civil War battlefields, crucial for US troops going over the top of Flanders’ First World War trenches, carried on to the beaches of Normandy in 1944, and used in hand-to-hand combat in the jungles of Vietnam.

    Despite such faithful service, however, the US Army has called time on the bayonet by scrapping basic infantry training with a weapon that has become part of army folklore since its introduction to military arsenals in the 16th century.

    Although American soldiers do not generally go into battle with bayonets fixed to their M16 or M4 rifles — unlike their British counterparts with their SA80s — bayonet drills have been a vital part of training for decades.

    Now they are being scrapped as part of the first significant revamp of the army training regime in three decades.

    Bayonet charges are no longer regarded as relevant in the modern battlefield and the US Army has decided to switch its training to other forms of close-quarter combat — and to teach troops to improvise weapons from whatever is at hand, including lumps of wood or stones. It has also begun to use alternatives to the attached bayonet, including a five-shot, bolt-action shotgun underslung from an assault rifle.

    The changes are a result of adapting to combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. As well as the bayonet drills, out go five-mile runs, to be replaced with zigzag sprints and muscle-strength development.

    Like their counterparts in the British Army, American military trainers are discovering that recruits are often overweight and unfit, and time has to be spent on building up their muscle strength to help them to carry heavy packs and body armour or to haul a comrade out of a burning vehicle.

    “We have to make the training relevant to the conditions on the modern battlefield,” said Lieutenant-General Mark Hertling, of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

    The army’s views remain at odds with the US Marine Corps, which still has bayonet training firmly on its agenda, even though Marines last used them in Vietnam.

    A spokesman for the Marines’ Training and Education Command said there was a special bayonet course that all recruits had to complete as part of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Programme. “They have to go through a whole checklist of bayonet drills, including slash techniques,” the spokesman said. “It’s still relevant for us in Afghanistan.”

    US army soldiers used fixed bayonets when clearing Iraqi trenches in Kuwait in 1991, but the last known bayonet charge by US troops was in the Korean War in the 1950s.

    The most notable of these was a legendary assault up Hill 180 led by Captain Lewis Millett against an enemy gun position that had been pinning down his platoon. He was awarded the Medal of Honour for gallantry.


  3. From The Sunday Times, May 16, 2004

    British troops kill 20 in bayonet clash

    Stephen Grey, Basra, and Adam Nathan

    BRITISH soldiers fixed bayonets and fought hand-to-hand with a Shi’ite militia in southern Iraq in one of their fiercest clashes since the war officially ended last May.
    They mounted what were described as “classic infantry assaults” on firing and mortar positions held by more than 100 fighters loyal to the outlawed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, military sources revealed yesterday.

    At least 20 men from al-Sadr’s Mehdi army were said to have been killed in more than three hours of fighting — the highest toll reported in any single incident involving British forces in the past 12 months. Three British soldiers were injured, none seriously, and nine fighters were captured.

    “It was very bloody and it was difficult to count all their dead,” said one source. “There were bodies floating in the river.”

    Details of the incident emerged as General Sir Michael Walker, chief of the defence staff, told The Sunday Times that British forces would remain in strength at least until Iraq’s elections next year.

    A further 3,000 troops may also be sent to boost troop strengths around Najaf in the centre of the country, also the scene of violent clashes.

    The fighting began when soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were ambushed in two Land Rovers on Friday afternoon, about 15 miles south of the city of Amara.

    They escaped, only to be ambushed a second time by a larger group armed with machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Reinforcements were summoned from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment at a base nearby.

    “There was some pretty fierce hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets fixed,” the source said. “There were some classic assaults on mortar positions held by the al-Sadr forces.”

    Major Ian Clooney, the official spokesman, confirmed that the Mehdi army “took a pretty heavy knocking” but declined to specify the tactics. “This was certainly an intense engagement,” he said.

    Since their arrival in Amara just under a month ago, the Princess of Wales’s regiment had been engaged in a tough struggle with the Mehdi army, which has been launching mortar attacks at night on the British and the coalition civilian headquarters in the city.

    Although armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), the militia has found it hard to cope with Britain’s heavily armoured Warriors, one of which is reputed to have been struck by seven different RPGs and still managed to continue safely to base.

    Walker said that “sufficient superiority” of British forces would be required to deal with unrest in the run-up to 2005 elections.

    “There are some incursions that will occur, particularly up to June 30, and during the period up to elections next year,” he said. “We will need to have sufficient superiority of force to be able to deal with civil unrest and terrorism.

    “We are in discussions with the Americans about putting more people out. If one suddenly had a major reconstruction problem we would need more troops to be able to support that without removing people from their role.”

    Among the 3,000 troops under consideration to boost forces around Najaf is 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines.

    Tony Blair will come under pressure from some Labour MPs and the Liberal Democrats to hold a Commons vote before the troops are sent.

    Blair is likely to dismiss Labour calls as being from what he will portray as the left of the party. But if the calls gain momentum and key figures such as the former foreign secretary Robin Cook speak out, he may have his hand forced.

    Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: “Before any further British troops are sent, the government should consult with and listen to parliament about the role they are to undertake.”

    However, Walker said the plan was gradually to reduce the 12,000 British troop presence in the southeast region of Basra and Amara as soon as local security forces gained control of the area.

    “The main task is to continue to ensure that we prepare Iraq for the Iraqi people to be able to take sovereignty on June 30,” he said.

    “The intention is to draw back the coalition face of the security activities in the southeast so it becomes increasingly Iraqi. When it gets to a stage where they can do it on their own we will reduce our numbers.”

    British troops in southeast Iraq are already significantly outnumbered by local Iraqi police and the 5,100-strong Iraqi civil defence corps.

    Walker said that British troops would stay in Iraq as long as they were needed. “It is very difficult to say how long we will have to stay but we are committed to stay until we are no longer needed.”


  4. From Times Online, December 22, 2005

    Terrorist plot to kill hero soldier

    By Jenny Booth and PA News

    A 21-year-old market stall holder was today convicted of terrorism and faced a lengthy prison sentence after plotting to “hunt down” and kill a decorated British soldier.

    Abu Mansha obtained an address for Corporal Mark Byles, who led a bayonet charge killing up to 20 Iraqi rebels.

    When Mansha’s flat was searched, police found a blank firing gun in the process of being converted to shoot live rounds. Also recovered was a stash of DVDs brimming with “virulent anti-Western propaganda”, London’s Southwark Crown Court was told.

    Some featured Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, while one depicted the gruesome beheading of British hostage Ken Bigley.

    In a bag behind the sofa, officers discovered a copy of the Sun newspaper featuring an article headlined Lionheart Bayonet Charge Hero To Get Bravery Gong, and detailing how the Corporal led a charge on a trench of rebels which left at least five insurgents dead.

    The story went on to describe him rifle-butting, punching and kicking rebels in hand-to-hand combat. He was quoted saying: “It was either me or them.” Another paragraph had been circled. It read the recruit “reckons he killed between 15 and 20 insurgents”.

    Mansha, whose fingerprints were found on the newspaper, denied having anything to do with terrorism, and said most of the items found in his apartment were connected with research he was helping a journalist friend with. He also told jurors he was neither a strict Muslim nor had any strong political views.

    The defendant, of Arnott Close, Thames Mead, south-east London, also insisted he had bought the pistol from a market stall as a souvenir.

    But the seven women and five men trying him decided he was lying and after seven hours deliberations convicted him of one count under Section 58 (1b) of the Terrorism Act. That stated the information in his possession was “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.

    Mansha remained impassive as Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith told him that because he had been found guilty of a “serious and unusual” offence he needed a pre-sentence report before he dealt with him. He adjourned the case until January 26 and Mansha, who has a previous conviction for affray following a racial confrontation with another market stall holder three years ago, was remanded in custody.

    Cpl Byles gave evidence at the two week trial from behind screens, offering jurors a brief but graphic account of the bloody confrontation in the “volatile” area of Al Amarah on May 14 last year, which was to trigger Mansha’s plot for revenge.

    Describing the ambush, he recalled: “I had two choices: stay there and be cut to pieces… or put down concentrated fire and attack the positions, which is what I did.

    “Once I got into the position, there were a number of gunmen. Some were dead, some were pointing weapons at me. Others were surrendering. I had to identify those that posed the greatest threat to me. I had to neutralise the gunmen.

    “I took in total three positions. Myself and my team captured, I believe, about eight gunmen and killed about 20 officially and 16 unofficially.”

    The court heard the soldier was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for both “immense professionalism under fire” and bravery in leading an assault on an enemy position.

    The court heard that after Mansha decided to punish the soldier for his actions, he managed to obtain what turned out to be his old address in Portsmouth. The piece of paper on which he wrote the address was recovered by police.

    David Cocks QC, prosecuting, said: “We say that looked at in the context of what else was in the flat, he had the piece of paper with Cpl Byles’s information on in his possession either to kill him or to do him really serious injury to exact revenge, no doubt with other people, for what the corporal had achieved in Iraq – the part the corporal had played in killing Iraqi insurgents. We say he was targeted for political purposes.”

    By doing so, Mansha hoped “British soldiers in particular and the British public in general might be intimidated and the radical Islamic cause might be advanced”.

    Jurors were told that among other things, the DVDs found in his flat contained footage of allied troops being attacked, and calls for Muslims to take part in Jihad following the allied attack on Fallujah. Mr Cocks said the material was “extremely distasteful and virulent”, and clearly indicated the “nature of the interests of this defendant and other people who used that flat”.

    Other items found included an Islamic poem which described Tony Blair and George Bush as “dirty pigs”.

    As the trial unfolded, jurors were told indentations on note paper revealed Mansha had also asked for information on a rich Jewish man and the Hindu owner of a cash and carry business. Mr Cocks added: “It is plain that they were also being targeted. In their case, it is nothing to do with harm they may have done to the Muslim community. It was because of their religious beliefs.”

    Mansha was arrested last March following an operation by anti-terrorist and firearms officers.

    Speaking following Mansha’s conviction today, Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard’s Anti-Terrorist Branch, said: “Abu Mansha researched the personal details of several people. Put this together with the other material that was found when he was arrested and it is obvious that he was involved in terrorist targeting.

    “I hope that Mansha’s conviction sends out a strong message that we will take firm action to stop terrorism even if it is only at the planning stages. That is how we protect the public from people like Mansha.”

    The Ministry of Defence gave no official reaction to today’s verdict but a spokesman added: “The MoD takes the security and welfare of its personnel very seriously and security is kept constantly under review.”


  5. From The Times, March 29, 2003

    Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Harper

    Resolute leader of Chindit incursions in Burma, and England polo ace who never lost his love of fun and games

    Over the 19 days of Operation Surubaya in East Java, Alec Harper’s leadership in command of 3rd Battalion 9th Gurkha Rifles was a key element in the liberation of 3,000 Dutch nationals. Interned by the Japanese in 1942, they came under threat from Indonesian nationalists on their release three years later. Many were killed or injured.

    Off the battlefield, Harper was no less conspicuous in the polo world. With five decades as a competitor and long service as honorary secretary of the sport’s professional body, he was one of the few remaining links between polo as played in the British Raj and today’s game, open to professionals and to women.

    Born in England the son of an Indian Army officer, Alexander Forrest Harper spent the best part of his first nine years in India before returning to England for schooling. Determined to follow his father into the Indian Army, he trained at Sandhurst, where one of his particular strengths was bayonet fencing, a discipline encouraged after the hand-to-hand combat experiences of troops in the First World War.

    On commissioning, he served his British Army attachment with 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers before joining his Indian Army regiment, the Royal Deccan Horse. Later, he became an instructor at the Indian Army Cavalry School at Saugor.

    In his spare time, he enjoyed all the sport a cavalry regiment provided for British officers in the days of empire, with pigsticking (hunting wild boar with spears on horseback), polo and big-game hunting his particular favourites.

    In his first polo season, 1932, he won both the junior regimental tournament in Poona and the Rajpipla Cup in Bombay, going from no handicap to a two-goal handicap in the course of just one tournament.

    Polo also formed part of his duties when, from 1938 to 1940, he was aide-de-camp to the Governor of Bengal, organising the last prewar Calcutta Christmas Tournament, which attracted many of the world’s leading polo players.

    Mechanisation of the Indian cavalry was taking time at the outbreak of war. So, as he fretted for a combat role, Harper transferred to the 9th Gurkha Rifles in 111 Brigade of the 70th Indian Division.

    During the planning stage for Major-General Orde Wingate’s second strategic Chindit incursion against Japanese lines of communication in Burma, Operation Thursday, this brigade was put under his command. The operation, which lasted for more than five months, included service under the US General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in set-piece fighting against the Japanese for which the Chindits were neither equipped nor adequately armed with heavy weapons.

    When the commanding officer of 3/9th Gurkha Rifles became seriously ill, Harper took over command of the battalion.

    On one horrendous operation during the monsoon, airdrops were so hampered by low cloud that the already exhausted soldiers had to make one day’s rations last for up to a week. In an attack on July 9, 1944, Major F. G. Blaker, of Harper’s battalion, won a posthumous VC, as recommended by Harper. He himself was mentioned in dispatches.

    After the war Harper spoke and wrote little about his Chindit experiences, at the conclusion of which, although a big-boned man of 6ft 3in, he weighed just ten stone. After the Japanese surrender there was one more fighting role for the 3/9th, in November 1945, since they were well placed to help restore peace in Java.

    Insurgents had taken advantage of the power vacuum after the Japanese withdrawal and began killing members of the Dutch colonial population who had been interned. Led by Harper, who won the DSO for this action, the 3/9th captured the town of Surubaya in East Java from the rebels, who were not only fanatical but a determined and skilful force. Sniping by rifle and machinegun was continuous, and to avoid civilian deaths and limit damage Harper had to calculate carefully the amount of fire support he should use.

    He then returned to peacetime soldiering in India, where in 1946 he married Rosemary Hayward, whom he had met while hunting jackals with the Ootacamund Hounds. He left the army to join his father-in-law’s distillery business, Hayward’s Gin, a brand popular throughout the sub-continent. He also played a prominent part in the postwar revival of polo in Calcutta.

    On leave in 1951 and 1953, he played polo for England in the finals of the Coronation Cup against Argentina, winning in 1951 and only narrowly losing in 1953. The following year, he returned permanently to England with his wife and two children, moving in 1955 to Ambersham Farmhouse on the Cowdray Park estate of his friend, the 3rd Lord Cowdray. Playing mostly for the Cowdray Park team, he appeared in no fewer than eight Gold Cup finals, being part of the winning side in 1958 and again in 1961.

    For many years, he made his living by buying horses to make into polo ponies, in which he was ably assisted by his former Indian Army orderly, Bachan Singh. In 1971 Harper also became the willing workhorse of polo’s governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Association, responsible for its day-to-day running for 18 years. He was not enthusiastic about the major change of those years, the admission of professionals, but saw it through punctiliously.

    Fun was important to Harper, and he was the deadpan foil for his wife’s wit. He liked to create a stir with his writing, enjoying playing Colonel Blimp in a deluge of communiqués to his MP about Europe. Well into his declining years, he wrote provocative letters month after month to Polo Times. One of these — asking, tongue in cheek, for readers’ opinions of the value of sex before a polo game — elicited a correspondence that still continues.

    In his eighties and nineties, he wrote two volumes of autobiography, Horse and Foot (1995) and More Horse and Foot (2002). He liked threatening to publish Even More Horse and Foot, but it was not to be.

    At 73, Harper won the Jersey Lilies Cup, a low-goal tournament, and at 77 he borrowed his son Sandy’s ponies to play his last match of low-goal polo. He was a regular spectator at Cowdray Park until the end of last season, forever generous in advice and help. A lasting memorial will be the Harper Spurs, presented to the runners-up in the Gold Cup final.

    He is survived by his wife Rosemary, and their son and daughter.

    Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Harper, DSO, soldier and polo player, was born on July 12, 1910. He died on March 11, 2003, aged 92.


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