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When a Sword was Used in WW1 Trenches

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

Photo, from https://royalarmouries.org/stories/our-collection/object-of-the-month-for-september-welsh-knife-of-the-9th-battalion-royal-welch-fusiliers/

Photo, from https://royalarmouries.org/stories/our-collection/object-of-the-month-for-september-welsh-knife-of-the-9th-battalion-royal-welch-fusiliers/


The improvement of firearm technology basically rendered older weapons useless. Bows, arrows, polearms and the rest have a certain romance on them, but they can’t save a soldier from a speeding bullet. And slowly, swords were being pushed aside, until soldiers completely abandoned their use. And nations were in for a big adjustment when the First World War broke out. Prior to that, armies were in the process of refining their tactics in response to the advancements of technologies. But the battles of World War I saw a big leap in weaponry. Suddenly, their battleplans never worked, and the results were massive casualties and a stalemate in the trenches.

And as the superpowers adapted to the sudden changes of the First World War, wild ideas emerged. And this was perfectly demonstrated by the usage of strange melee weapons in the trenches. Indeed, firearm technologies rendered some implements obsolete. But that never stopped the soldiers from readopting them. The cramped environment of the trenches called for weapons they could use for close-combat and hand-to-hand fighting. Hence aside from grenades and light firearms, medieval style clubs and exotic fighting knives saw wide use in trench raiding. Suddenly, the fight turned medieval with soldiers wielding trench clubs and daggers with brass knuckles.

And believe it or not, swords are even used.

The Welsh Trench Sword

A Royal Welsh Fusilier.

A Royal Welsh Fusilier.

To begin with, gaining an edge in trench fighting resulted in the most evil looking bladed weapons. As observers noted, the knives of World War One are still counted as the most exotic edged implement in history. Even when compared to medieval daggers around the world, knives with brass dagger guard and spiked pommel look meaner. It was quick kill that gave birth to these weapons, as well as movement in cramped environment. And soldiers will use almost anything to achieve this, even crude steel stakes and sawed-off bayonets.

Swords were the last thing to consider when fighting in the trenches, for obvious reasons. A typical sword in that period could reach 44 inches. Simply, they were too long to swing inside cramped environments. One of the last swords to be issued was the Model 1913 Cavalry Saber, or the Patton saber, designed by future General George S. Patton Jr. But with the cavalry being unideal to the environments of World War I, this sword never saw action.

But the 9th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers were swinging their own swords and used it with great effects. Their sword variant was shorter and held with one hand. Though it was called a knife, it was a sword. The Welsh trench sword.

Description

A Welsh trench sword. From the Royal Armories.

A Welsh trench sword. From the Royal Armories.

At first glance, the Welsh trench sword lacked the flair of the traditional sword images. It never resembled one’s idea of a glistening bladed weapon. As a friend commented, the sword wasn’t a gentleman’s carry, but a robust fighting tool. The overall look of the sword described well the realities and conditions of World War One. Indeed, the sword wasn’t decorated nor gilded. To begin with, the weapon is shorter in terms of normal sword dimensions. The blade was 17.6 inches long, and the overall length of the said implement was two feet (24 inches). It weighs 36 ounces (about 1.02 kg). Heavier than most trench clubs. By comparison, the Patton Saber is 44 inches long. The Japanese Katana was 39 inches, while rapiers are 48.5 inches long. By length, the Welsh sword was a short sword, comparable to the Roman gladius (28 inches long).

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For handle, the full tang was wrapped in cordage, and while the hilt featured a wrist loop of rope, to prevent the soldier from losing his weapon. Th guard protecting the hand could fold, so it would not bulge when sheathed. And like any trench bladed weapon of World War I, it had a pointy “skull cracker” pommel.

Its most distinctive feature was the blade. What it lacked in length, it makes up for in blade width. The robust blade was a large leaf shape, good for chopping, but the thick blade could hamper its cutting ability. Some blades bore the engraving “DROS URDDAS CYMRU” (For the Honour of Wales).

Development

Joubert's patent drawing.

Joubert's patent drawing.

The one who created the modern version of this anachronistic weapon was antique dealer, arms collector and scholar Felix Joubert of Chelsea. He worked in Windsor Castle and Wallace collection, and yes, he was a renowned armor restorer. Indeed, he was good, so good that he also faked antiqued weaponry and sold it to clueless buyers. Being a scholar and not a military man, he was the last person one will consult when designing weapons for modern soldiers. Nevertheless, he managed to patent his trench sword, and sold that thing to Thomas Scott-Ellis, 8th Lord Howard de Walden.

The said Lord was the veteran in the Boer War, and rode with the 10th Hussar, with interests ranging from history to athletics. Then the War broke out, and Lord Walden became the second in command of the 9th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He needed a weapon that would set the Welshman apart, and Felix Joubert entered the scene. Prior to that, Joubert was already commissioned by Lord Walden to create reproduction of medieval weaponry, his interests and hobbies. And when the lack of standardized trench knives for the British was brought out, Lord Walden gave Joubert a new assignment. Designing an appropriate weapon for his battalion.

And the Welsh trench sword was born.

What Happened Next

The design of the smatchet was inspired by the Welsh trench sword.

The design of the smatchet was inspired by the Welsh trench sword.

According to Joubert, the sword was based on a Welsh medieval weapon, the traditional cleddyd. Such a claim was without basis, and just promotional material, though the leaf-shaped blade resembled the Bronze-Age European sword. One might wonder if the sword was effective, or just another gimmicky piece of metal to add to the heavy loads of the soldier. The Messines Ridge raid (5 June 1917) offered conflicting accounts. Lloyd-Williams described its success as “conspicuous: though his accounts that it was for bayoneting than cutting conflicted with the usage of the sword. Others describe it as effective.

Nevertheless, it inspired future blade designs, like the World War II smatchet by William E. Fairbairn. Coincidentally, a large chopping blade in the shape of leaf also existed elsewhere. The Filipino Moro Barong also utilized a leaf shaped blade. Nowadays, swords were never carried by modern armies, though blades with similar function existed, like the Kukri and bolo. Unlike the swords of the classical armies, the large hewing blades of the modern soldier have utility in mind and not pure weapon.


References

1. JOUBERT’S WELSH TRENCH SWORD (9 June 2018). Retrieved from Joubert’s Welsh trench sword | laststandonzombieisland.

2. Welsh knife (n.d.). Retrieved from Welsh knife | Royal Armouries.

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