by Chris William
The First World War ushered in the brutality of modern mass warfare with over 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. Whether joining Germany and Austria in the Central powers or the French and British in the Allied cause, many of the world’s countries sent their soldiers to die on the bloody fields of Europe.
While mired in the endless miles of dirt-faced trenches day after day, soldiers on both sides found abundant uses for personal utility knives. Because of their locale, the soldiers gave the utilitarian weapons the nickname, “trench knives.” These blades could perform both the mundane service of food and camp preparations. In the event of the sudden hand-to-hand combat that often took place in the confined trench spaces, the knives would serve the second purpose as potent weapons accompanying clubs, pistols, and grenades. For covert missions that involved special teams going into the enemy areas, small knives were capable of silently ending a sentry’s life without warning his comrades of the impending attack.
CENTRAL POWERS TRENCH KNIVES
When the war began, many German and Austrian soldiers carried small privately purchased huntingknives. In addition, the German army issued a number of Nahkampfmesser (close combat knives) to their soldiers as standard equipment to be used as weapons and for less lethal purposes.
Each of these mass-produced knives consisted of well-made, 6-inch steel blade with a plain metal cross guard and wooden handles riveted to the tang. Each was carried in a black-painted, steel scabbard and suspended from a leather loop meant to be hung on the owner’s belt or equipment straps. German manufacturer logos were sometimes stamped into the blade ricassos as were the armory inspection markings.
Privately purchased knives continued to be popular among the troops, with manufacturers developing a wider variety of shapes and sizes in a array of different construction materials. Stag, wooden, and all-metal handles could be found on straight or “bowie shaped” blades resting in steel or leather scabbards. Some commercially manufactured knives were designed with offset handles, slots, and push buttons that enabled the owner toattach the knife to an infantry rifle, if necessary.
During the long periods of boredom between the terrors of battle, soldiers sometimes modified bayonets or other pieces of field scrap metal into devastating trench knives designed to slash or stab an enemy soldier. These trench-made pieces came in an assortment of qualities and styles, depending on the materials available and the talent of the soldiers making them.
During the war, soldiers of the Imperial German army were required to carry a weapon at all times. With the larger pocketbooks of officers (and some enlisted men) in mind, blade makers began to manufacture higher quality and more elaborate trench knives. These pieces could have stag, bone or richly carved wooden handles, blue paneled blades with engravings and commemorations, or many other rich embellishments to entice well heeled soldiers to purchase the weapons. In addition, sword knots were often added to the trench knives to add a bit of flare to the officer’s, or enlisted man’s dress when walking out.
ALLIED TRENCH KNIVES
Soldiers of the United Kingdom went into battle with an assortment of privately purchased, issued, or home-wrought knives. A particularly grisly model produced was the “push dagger,” a T-shaped device with a spike or double edged blade attached to a traverse mounted handle that fit into the palm of the soldier’s hand. With this weapon, the Tommy could both punch and stab his opponent.
French soldiers used a number of different types of trench knives, from flat, double-edged models used to slash the opponent to those fashioned from Lebel rifle cruciform bayonets intended to thrust and stab an enemy in a fight. “French nails” were crude, field-forged spiked weapons with hand-sharpened blades and bent handles created from scrap metals — especially pieces of salvaged barbed wire posts.
American soldiers of the Expeditionary Forces carried both privately purchased and issued weapons into the European battlefields. As with the soldiers of other countries, hunting knives were popular and widely used. The U.S. army M1917 and M1918 trench knives were truly gruesome weapons, produced with 3-cornered, long spike blades and a well-made wooden handle topped with a domed locknut securing a knobbed-knuckle “D” guard. The design of these knives were meant to inflict the most damage when striking an enemy soldier. The M1917 was housed in a green leather round scabbard with a steel toe, throat, and swivel hook mounted at the top for attachment to the canvas field belt. In reality, these knives proved to be limited in their use (not having cutting or slashing blades) and the blade construction was somewhatfragile.
During the second half of 1918, the Mark 1 trench knife was introduced. This improved weapon was produced by both US and French cutleries, featuring a 6-3/4 inch double-edged steel blade with a unique segmented “D” guard handle, akin to “brass knuckles”. The handle grip featured “U.S. 1918”and the contractor’s initials stamped on the side (or on the ricasso for French-made pieces). The Mark 1 was housed in a blackened steel scabbard, and saw limited use before the end of the war in November 1918.
A WIDE VARIETY
Because more than 32 countries participated in the First World War, a diverse number of trench knives were produced and used across Europe. With the cessation of hostilities, thousands of the issued weapons found their way back into the armories of their respective nations. But, after a mere twenty years, many would be in the hands of soldiers again, as the “war to end all wars” was soon followed by a second, and even more devastating world conflict.