What is a Bayonet Charge?


The development of the bayonet from the 17th century onwards led to the bayonet charge becoming the main infantry tactic throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. As early as the 19th century, military scholars were already noting that most bayonet charges did not result in close combat. Instead, one side usually fled before actual bayonet fighting ensued. The act of fixing bayonets has been held to be primarily connected to morale, the making of a clear signal to friend and foe of a willingness to kill at close quarters.

French infantry bayonet charge, carrying 1886 Lebel rifles, in 1913.

The bayonet charge was above all a tool of shock. While charges were reasonably common in 18th and 19th century warfare, actual combat between formations with their bayonets was so rare as to be effectively non-existent. Usually, a charge would only happen after a long exchange of gunfire, and one side would break and run before contact was actually made. Sir Charles Oman, nearing the end of his history of the Peninsular War (1807-1814) in which he had closely studied hundreds of battles and combats, only discovered a single example of, in his words, “one of the rarest things in the Peninsular War, a real hand-to-hand fight with the white weapon.” Infantry melees were much more common in close country – towns, villages, earthworks and other terrain which reduced visibility to such ranges that hand-to-hand fighting was unavoidable. These melees, however, were not bayonet charges per se, as they were not executed or defended against by regular bodies of orderly infantry; rather, they were a chaotic series of individual combats where musket butts and fists were used alongside bayonets, swords, and polearms.

Napoleonic Wars

The bayonet charge was a common tactic used during the Napoleonic wars. Despite its effectiveness, a bayonet charge did not necessarily cause substantial casualties through the use of the weapon itself. Detailed battle casualty lists from the 18th century showed that in many battles, less than 2% of all wounds treated were caused by bayonets. Antoine-Henri Jomini, a celebrated military author who served in numerous armies during the Napoleonic period, stated that the majority of bayonet charges in the open resulted with one side fleeing before any contact was made. Combat with bayonets did occur, but mostly on a small scale when units of opposing sides encountered each other in a confined environment, such as during the storming of fortifications or during ambush skirmishes in broken terrain. In an age of fire by massed volley, when compared to random unseen bullets, the threat of the bayonet was much more tangible and immediate – guaranteed to lead to a personal gruesome conclusion if both sides persisted. All this encouraged men to flee before the lines met. Thus, the bayonet was an immensely useful weapon for capturing ground from the enemy, despite seldom actually being used to inflict wounds.

American Civil War

During the American Civil War (1861–1865) the bayonet was found to be responsible for less than 1% of battlefield casualties, a hallmark of modern warfare. The use of bayonet charges to force the enemy to retreat was very successful in numerous small unit engagements at short range in the American Civil War, as most troops would retreat when charged while reloading. Although such charges inflicted few casualties, they often decided short engagements, and tactical possession of important defensive ground features. Additionally, bayonet drill could be used to rally men temporarily unnerved by enemy fire.

While the overall Battle of Gettysburg was won by the Union armies due to a combination of terrain and massed artillery fire, a decisive point on the second day of the battle hinged on a bayonet charge at Little Round Top when Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, running short of musket ammunition, charged downhill, surprising and capturing many of the surviving soldiers of the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment and other Confederate regiments. Other bayonet charges occurred at Gettysburg, such as that of the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment. This was ordered in desperation by General Hancock earlier on 02 July in order to delay a Confederate brigade’s advance long enough to bring up reinforcements for the holed Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Still another bayonet charge was conducted late in the evening on 02 July by the 137th New York Infantry Regiment defending the extreme right flank of the Union line on Culp’s Hill. The charge of several companies managed to temporarily stall the advance of the 10th Virginia Infantry Regiment long enough for the 14th Brooklyn to move in on the 137th’s right and repel the attack.

Going over the Top

The popular image of World War I combat is of a wave of soldiers with bayonets fixed, “going over the top” and charging across no man’s land into a hail of enemy fire. Although this was the standard method of fighting early in the war, it was rarely successful. British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme were the worst in the history of the British army, with 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 of whom were killed.

During World War I, no man’s land was often hundreds of yards across. The area was usually devastated by the warfare and riddled with craters from artillery and mortar shells, and sometimes contaminated by chemical weapons. Heavily defended by machine guns, mortars, artillery, and riflemen on both sides, it was often covered with barbed wire and land mines, and littered with the rotting corpses of those who were not able to make it across the sea of projectiles, explosions, and flames. A bayonet charge through no man’s land often resulted in the total annihilation of entire battalions.

Banzai Charges

The advent of modern warfare in the 20th century made bayonet charges dubious affairs. During the Siege of Port Arthur (1904–1905), the Japanese used suicidal human wave attacks against Russian artillery and machine guns, suffering massive casualties. One description of the aftermath was that a “thick, unbroken mass of corpses covered the cold earth like a [carpet]”.

However, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese were able to effectively use bayonet charges against poorly organised and lightly armed Chinese troops. “Banzai charges” became an accepted military tactic where Japanese forces were able to routinely rout larger Chinese forces.

In the early stages of the Pacific War (1941-1945), a sudden banzai charge might overwhelm small groups of enemy soldiers unprepared for such an attack. But, by the end of the war, against well organized and heavily armed Allied forces, a banzai charge inflicted little damage while its participants suffered horrendous losses. At best, they were conducted as a last resort by small groups of surviving soldiers when the main battle was already lost. At worst, they wasted valuable resources in men and weapons, which hastened defeat.

Some Japanese commanders, such as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, recognised the futility and waste of such attacks and expressly forbade their men from carrying them out. Indeed, the Americans were surprised that the Japanese did not employ banzai charges at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Human Wave Attack

The term “human wave attack” was often misused to describe the Chinese short attack – a combination of infiltration and the shock tactics employed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the Korean War (1950-1953). A typical Chinese short attack was carried out at night by sending a series of small five-man fireteams to attack the weakest point of an enemy’s defences. The Chinese assault team would crawl undetected within grenade range, then launch surprise attacks with fixed bayonets against the defenders in order to breach the defences by relying on maximum shock and confusion.

If the initial shock failed to breach the defences, additional fireteams would press on behind them and attack the same point until a breach was created. Once penetration was achieved, the bulk of the Chinese forces would move into the enemy rear and attack from behind. Due to primitive communication systems and tight political controls within the Chinese army, short attacks were often repeated until either the defences were penetrated or the attackers were completely annihilated.

This persistent attack pattern left a strong impression on United Nations (UN) forces that fought in Korea, giving birth to the description of “human wave”. The term “human wave” was later used by journalists and military officials to convey the image of the American soldiers being assaulted by overwhelming numbers of Chinese on a broad front, which is inaccurate when compared with the normal Chinese practice of sending successive series of small teams against a weak point in the line. It was in fact rare for the Chinese to actually use densely concentrated infantry formations to absorb enemy firepower.

Modern Usage

One use the Germans in World War II made of bayonets was to search for people in hiding. One person hiding in a house in the Netherlands wrote: “The Germans made lots of noise as they came upstairs, and they stabbed their bayonets into the wall. Then what we’d always feared actually happened: A bayonet went through the thin wallpaper above the closet, exposing the three people who were hiding there. ‘Raus!’ cried the Germans. ‘Out!'”.

During the Korean War, the French Battalion and Turkish Brigade used bayonet charges against enemy combatants. In 1951, United States Army officer Lewis L. Millett led soldiers of the US Army’s 27th Infantry Regiment in taking out a machine gun position with bayonets. Historian S.L.A. Marshall described the attack as “the most complete bayonet charge by American troops since Cold Harbor”. Out of about 50 enemy dead, roughly 20 were found to have been killed by bayonets, and the location subsequently became known as Bayonet Hill. This was the last bayonet charge by the US Army. For his leadership during the assault, Millett was awarded the Medal of Honour. The medal was formally presented to him by President Harry S. Truman in July 1951. He was also awarded the Army’s second-highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross, for leading another bayonet charge in the same month.

On 23 October 1962, 20 Indian solider led by Joginder Singh would fix bayonets and charge a force of 200 Chinese soldiers. While the charge would prove futile for Singh and his men, it initially threw the Chinese off guard and forced a retreat despite outnumbering them 10-1.

On 08 May 1970, New Mexico Governor David Cargo dispatched “truckloads” of National Guardsmen to the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque in response to demonstrations by hundreds of students. The demonstrators were protesting the continued war in Vietnam, the recent extension of the war into Cambodia, and the Kent State Killings of four students four days earlier, on 04 May, by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. The Guardsmen at UNM were armed with bayonets fixed on their rifles and attacked the students with those bayonets, injuring eleven, leaving some with serious injuries.

In 1982, the British Army mounted bayonet charges during the Falklands War, notably the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment during the Battle of Mount Longdon and the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards during the final assault of Mount Tumbledown.

In 1995, during the Siege of Sarajevo, French Marine infantrymen from the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment carried out a bayonet charge against the Serbian forces at the Battle of Vrbanja bridge. Actions led by the regiment allowed the United Nations blue helmets to exit from a passive position due to a first time engagement in hostile responses. Two fatalities resulted from this event with seventeen others wounded.

During the Second Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan, British Army units mounted several bayonet charges. In 2004, at the Battle of Danny Boy in Iraq, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders bayonet-charged mortar positions filled with over 100 Mahdi Army members. The ensuing hand-to-hand fighting resulted in an estimate of over 40 insurgents killed and 35 bodies collected (many floated down the river) and nine prisoners. Sergeant Brian Wood, of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the battle.

In 2009, Lieutenant James Adamson of the Royal Regiment of Scotland was awarded the Military Cross for a bayonet charge while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan: after shooting one Taliban fighter dead, Adamson had run out of ammunition when another enemy appeared. He immediately charged the second Taliban fighter and bayoneted him. In September 2012, Lance Corporal Sean Jones of The Princess of Wales’s Regiment was awarded the Military Cross for his role in a bayonet charge which took place in October 2011.

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