Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession, but a writer by night. He loves toys and knives. He also has a martial arts background.
The First World War was a glimpse to future conflicts. People saw automatic firearms being used to its full potentials, tanks crawling into the battlefield and aircrafts buzzing above the soldiers’ heads. The shift to modern technologies at that time changed the way soldiers fought. Gone are the massed formations and horse cavalry charges, and men were left hunkered down in their trenches.
The anarchist Gavrilo Princip surely never imagined how his actions will lead to this mechanized apocalypse. It’s disturbingly amazing how his round, ripping the neck of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and piercing the abdomen of his wife Sophie would soon start a conflict among superpowers. And as the First World War rages, the shift of battle tactics eventually made soldiers resort to unusual means.
With the modern technologies at their disposal, one might think that World War I is a pure firefight. But trench raids among attacking and defending soldiers culminated in a brutal close combat, and the fight shifted from exchanges of shots, to hand-to-hand fights.
And this is when things became medieval.
The opposing sides killed each other with special weapons, made for cramped environments. Rifles and bayonets were a disadvantage in tight spaces, and the soldiers wielded portable firearms like shortened shotguns, handguns, and submachine guns, together with a collection of weird melee weapons.
And one of them was the curiously terrifying trench knife.
Defending your position while trying to infiltrate the opposing side until attrition was achieved was World War I in a nutshell. Early in the war, waves and waves of soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets would charge across the no-man’s land and into the wall of machine gun fire. The results of which were mostly disastrous, and both sides refined their tactics to deal with this new kind of warfare. Barrage made by artilleries suppressed the enemy before infantries made their moves. The Germans on the other hand refined their infiltration tactics, where a small group of soldiers would go for the vulnerable points of the enemy position. Capturing and defending positions culminated in a trench to trench fighting, and small, portable firearms were favored in addition to hand grenades.
And in tight spaces, fights could end in a brawl.
Initially troops were not formally equipped, and they were forced to improvise. Hatchets and hammers were used, and entrenching tools became a favorite. In one account, a sharpened spade that could be swung in cramped environment was preferred over bayonets, which could get stuck in an unfortunate victim. Troops also wielded trench raiding clubs, homemade blunt weapons that so resembles a medieval mace. The soldiers also needed a bladed weapon to silently eliminate sentries. With that said, a collection of knives of all shapes came out.
The Combat Knives
The usual idea we have for military combat knives were modern day versions of daggers or Bowie knives. But some knives in the trench seemed to undergo a strange mutation.
Knives in the First World War ranged from improvised, to specially built bladed weapons meant for trench raids. It came in many shapes, and even something as simple as steel stakes for barbwires were sharpened to be used as stabbing weapons, as in the case of French Nails. Others were shortened bayonets, and some resemble Bowie knives.
In the German side, trench raiders carried their sturdily built Nahkampfmesser, while the British fielded various Bowie types and push daggers.
But when trench knives were mentioned, the US version will come in mind for most collectors.
Evolution of the U.S. Trench Knives
The French Nails were crude improvised daggers, but a fully refined weapon thanks to Lt. Col. Coutrot was later introduced. Sections of the bayonets were modified to form the Poignard-Baïonnette Lebel M1886/14. It was a pure weapon, with stiletto blade, wooden handle, and a steel knuckle guard. It was made to kill the enemy quicker, and improved versions came out, such as a double-edged model.
Eventually, the US adopted the French trench knife designs, resulting in the M1917, M1918 and Mark I.
Blade and Knuckle Hybrid
Henry Disston and Sons based their designs on the French trench knives, but with a few added twists. In addition to the stiletto blade the M1917 featured a round pommel and a spiked handguard for protection. The problem here was that the knife was a pure weapon with no utilitarian use, plus the blade was flimsy and an improved version was adopted within months. This time, the M1918 featured a full brass knuckle handguard and an improved blade with an edge to enable slashing. Yet aside from the persisting blade quality issues, the knives still underperformed as weapons for their intended use.
One might wonder why the US Trench Knives looked the way they are. Their horrifying façade was based on some military requirements for trench combat. A knife must be handled with one hand to allow multi-taskings, with rapid deployment also in mind. And those knives had those signature knuckles not just as a weapon, but more on protection. The handguards and knuckles provided a secure grip when crawling, in prone position, and during a struggle. The knuckles with added spikes would prevent the enemy from disarming the user. Nevertheless, evaluations of the M1917 and M1918 confirmed that they need further improvements, and Mark 1 was introduced.
The American Expeditionary Forces, and the Engineering Division of U.S. Ordinance developed the Mark 1 trench knife in response to the issues of their troubled bladed weapons. It had the bronze handguard with spikes, flat double-edged blade, and a protruding “skull crusher “pommel for stunning or killing the enemy. To accommodate the large knuckle duster grip, the knife used a new metal scabbard. The steel material for the knife is of a more durable quality, to eliminate the constant breakage experienced with earlier trench knives.
One might wonder if the knife fulfilled its intended role. I have a chance to handle similar weapons from my knife collector friends. From the way I see it, the knife is not for everyone, starting with the brass knuckle handle. It might not fit smaller hands, while it could make the knife unbalanced. Plus, the knuckle duster design might limit the grip one could make on the knife.
And some of the troops back then shared my concerns.
Most of the field reports regarding the knife performance came from the Second World War, from soldiers tasked to fight in closed quarters such as the Marine Raiders. Some liked the design, but others agree that the knife had poor balance, slow deployment and with limited combat grips despite of the field evaluation made during the knife development. The blade still suffered from breakage, and not suited for utility tasks. Lastly was the fact that the knife was too expensive to produce.
The unique requirements of the First World War gave the knife an exotic appearance, but it was clear that normal looking bladed weapons were more suited to the task. The M3 would later replace the Mark 1, while experiences in the Second World War will lead to the KA-BAR fighting knives.
1. Dunleavy, Brian (January 6, 2020). "Life in the Trenches of World War I". History.com.
2. Trench Weapons (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/weapons-on-land/trench-weapons/
3. Murray, Nicholas (2013). The Rocky Road to the Great War: The Evolution of Trench Warfare to 1914.
4. "French Theatre Knives". Fightingknives.info. Archived from the original on 2012-04-20. Retrieved 2012-04-15.
5. Milzarsky, Eric (April 29, 2020. "Why the trench knife was the most stupidly awesome ever issued." We are Mighty.
Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on March 15, 2021:
Thanks for stopping by Randall!
E Randall from United States on March 14, 2021:
Fascinating, I learned a lot here, thanks for writing this.