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Thread: Carrying of swords into battle... or not

  1. #1
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    Carrying of swords into battle... or not

    Hi all,

    Presumably when acquiring a sword named to an officer we all look into the service history of the owners, hoping to find that they were present during battles which would suggest the sword might have been present too.

    There is something special in identifying that the sword might have been carried into battle or even used in anger perhaps.

    I own a few swords now named to officers serving during the 2nd ABW who were known to have fought at various battles and my assumption was that their swords would more likely than not, have been present with them.

    However I have now come across 2 reports of officers carrying a rifle into battle.

    At Spion Kop a Lieutenant Awdry is reported to have bayonetted the first boer casualty at the summit.

    At Botha Pass it is reported that "some officers had marvellous escapes, one having the butt of his rifle shattered"

    Prior to the 2nd Anglo Boer War I suppose a sword was still very relevant in terms self defence on the battlefield but I can imagine that the tide turned when facing maxims etc and the sword could be considered an encumbrance in battle.

    I wondered how common it was for officers to forego their sword altogether in favour of a rifle. After all they can't physically wield both when advancing.
    Last edited by james.elstob; 04-17-2019 at 11:44 AM.

  2. #2
    hi all ... I have heard officers had 2 swords one for real use and a nice one for parade use and etc. and the nice one engraved one was also his time spent in the service

  3. #3
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    I have original photos of an engineer officer, E.C. Midwinter, none show him with sword, just the belt and frog. He was at Omdurman, a telegram at the bottom has written in his hand "Great fight". I was hoping for photos with sword since I have his sword.
    Canadians sailed to SA for the Boer War left their trooper swords on board.

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    Hi William, I think that very much dependent on the individual officer (and the depths of his pockets).

    Will, I recall reading about your Midwinter sword on the VW forum, very interesting. Incidentally the sword I am researching presently was believed (by me) to have been at Omdurman. Felton Amber, 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers.

    Interesting that troopers would leave their swords aboard ship. After all it's much more likely that cavalry troopers would have need for a sword and it would be less of an encumbrance it being carried by the horse.
    Last edited by james.elstob; 04-17-2019 at 12:58 PM.

  5. #5
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    Canada caught on early that swords had become obsolete. Best to have a rifle scabbard and lots of ammo. Charges were few and far between but mounted infantry could do much more damage then cavalry with swords. Opposing 7mm Mausers you need similar firepower and accuracy.

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    Then there was Jack Churchill who carried not only a broadsword but longbow and occasionally bagpipes.

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    The romance of perfectly formed charging squadrons, thundering hooves shaking the ground as an earthquake, troopers swords raised high appearing as flashes of sunlight bearing down on the enemy, unfortunately is all but history.
    Jack Churchill could pull off anything, sword included. When I hold a sword with known history it does make one drift away into the past.

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    I remember reading somewhere (can't remember where, may have been a Richard Holmes book), that in WW1 when German snipers started picking off officers specifically because their caps and swords identified them as such, and some started wearing tin helmets and carrying rifles instead, it was considered by many "not the done thing", much like ducking when a shell exploded overhead or showing any other signs of lacking in moral fibre. But that doesn't mean it wasn't done!

    John
    "If I can't be a good example to others, at least let me be a horrible warning".

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Will Mathieson View Post
    The romance of perfectly formed charging squadrons, thundering hooves shaking the ground as an earthquake, troopers swords raised high appearing as flashes of sunlight bearing down on the enemy, unfortunately is all but history.
    Jack Churchill could pull off anything, sword included. When I hold a sword with known history it does make one drift away into the past.
    If only they could talk!

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    Quote Originally Posted by John Hart View Post
    I remember reading somewhere (can't remember where, may have been a Richard Holmes book), that in WW1 when German snipers started picking off officers specifically because their caps and swords identified them as such, and some started wearing tin helmets and carrying rifles instead, it was considered by many "not the done thing", much like ducking when a shell exploded overhead or showing any other signs of lacking in moral fibre. But that doesn't mean it wasn't done!

    John
    I had failed to consider that swords might be obsolete pre-WW1 so the 2 instances I mentioned have got me particularly interested in the boer war.

    I assume that the vast majority of officers during the ABW will have campaigned with their swords but will have made individual decisions about what arms to carry into a set piece battle subject to the circumstances.

    For instance with Lt Awdry at Spion Kop he was facing a night attack against an entrenched enemy following an arduous climb. Not surprising that he doesn't want a sword dangling around his legs.

    However there is also the issue of the improvement and increase in popularity of the handgun. I'd love to see some figures about this topic.
    Last edited by james.elstob; 04-18-2019 at 04:27 AM.

  11. #11
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    Period photos in the field would be most telling. I can't recall seeing any Boer War or WW1 photos of officers with swords except on parade addressing the troops. Of course always exceptions but would be small. "All That Was Left of Them" a 17th Lancers illustration does show lances (on the ground) and a few troops huddled together with carbines being cut down by the Boers.

  12. #12
    one last thing and last thought I have i have a nice wwl german train batt. swords that i would not take in to battle but i would grab the blucher art. sword issued to some troops, they were a lethal sword in looks and i am sure in using it also.... bill

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    G'day Will,

    Quite a few exceptions in 1914. I have 'copied for research' a number showing German officers on the march and at least one going into battle with swords. There is a good photo of a French officer with his 1848 Infantry sword leading a charge and a number of British officers of various regiments with their swords on the western front.
    “The Australian Light Horse attack on Beersheba was the last important cavalry charge in history and the last to win a resounding victory that altered the course of a war." Alec Hepburn

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    George did you have dates with the references? My guess is these references were early war or rear echelon as anyone quickly realized the futility of using anything but rifle and artillery.
    Always exceptions and one photo is only one instance and I'm not sure how many that could represent, not enough even to get a statistical report.
    Content of many photos were thought out, not just randomly taken as we do today. Taking photos of what people recognize would be important and previous to WW1 swords were common. Photos were morale boosters when showing marching troops etc.
    Last edited by Will Mathieson; 04-20-2019 at 05:30 AM.

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    I'm afraid I can't cite the reference, but I read sometime ago about a British cavalry unit charging a German Uhlan unit on the march in the early weeks of WWI, which they cut to pieces with their swords because they were able to get inside the lance tips. Of course, before the end of 1914 such charges would have been suicidal due to rifles and machineguns.
    "Courage is fear holding on a minute longer."--Gen. George S. Patton

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    Here are some of those photographs. I spent ages searching and ended up with about a dozen. Remember, Montgomery's sword took the brunt of a bullet in 1914 that probably saved his life.

    French Officer resting on his sword awaiting the ‘Miracle on the Marne’ (http://mentalfloss.com/article/58811...-miracle-marne)
    Serbian Officer resting on sword next to trenches (http://computasaur.tripod.com/ww1/id3.html)
    4 German Officers wearing swords just after capture of Brussels. IOD89 and Bavarian Infantry swords obvious. (http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/mem...Gibsonpix1.htm)
    German Officer leading troops towards Mons/Nimy (http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/art...rst-world-war/)
    British officers in conversation, Battle of Le Cateau, (http://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/4268...86398/?lp=true)

    Certainly it would appear that infantry officers on all sides discarded their sword by December 1914. The German cavalry on the Western Front seems to have handed theirs in in early 1915 but the units on the Eastern Front kept theirs. The British cavalry retained swords throughout the war and indeed, some Australian Light Horse regiments were issued swords after Beer Sheva.
    Last edited by George Charlton; 04-21-2019 at 05:58 PM. Reason: Additional comment
    “The Australian Light Horse attack on Beersheba was the last important cavalry charge in history and the last to win a resounding victory that altered the course of a war." Alec Hepburn

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    I have a Rifle officer's sword that was carried at the attempt to cross the river below Spion Kop. He refers to it in a letter.
    hc3

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    Quote Originally Posted by hc bright View Post
    I have a Rifle officer's sword that was carried at the attempt to cross the river below Spion Kop. He refers to it in a letter.
    Good evidence for sword carrying on the field.

    Considering the load of other personal items, equipment trunks, etc officers must have carried, in their baggage it would seem strange to me that they would forgo bringing their sword along in the field though I understand why some might chose to forgo carrying a sword into a battle.

    Up until that point the sword must have been such a powerful status symbol of an officer and ever-present item of uniform that I bet it was difficult for many to 'give it up' even after it had become clear it that the rifle ruled.
    Last edited by james.elstob; 06-24-2019 at 01:35 PM.

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    And then of course, you get these guys....
    Attached Images Attached Images  

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    I noticed this piece in the description for a medal auction. Had not come across this action before:

    "The destroyer Fame, under the command of Lieutenant Roger Keyes, R.N., afterwards Admiral of the Fleet, participated in a spectacular cutting-out operation, in concert with Whiting, on 17 June 1900, when both ships were ordered to capture four Chinese destroyers lying between Taku and Tongku - each ship towed into action a whaler manned by a dozen “Bluejackets”, all of them volunteers, on one of the last occasions boarding parties went into action with the cutlass.

    In his subsequent report to the Rear-Admiral, China Station, dated 27 June 1900, Keyes stated:

    ‘After a slight resistance and the exchange of a few shots, the crews were driven overboard or below hatches; there were a few killed and wounded; our casualties were nil. No damage was done to the prizes, but the Fame’s bow was slightly bent when we closed to board, and the Whiting was struck by a projectile about 4 or 5 inches abreast a coal bunker. This was evidently fired from a mud battery on the bend between Taku and Tongku, which fired in all about 30 shots at us, none of the others striking, though several coming very close ... There was a good deal of sniping from the dockyard so I directed all cables of the prizes to be slipped and proceeded to tow them up to Tongku.’ "

    Alan

  21. #21
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    D Troop, 3/5 Air Cavalry regularly carried sabers into battle in Vietnam according to their unit history. Cavalry legend Ace Cozzolio dismounted with his often, using it to capture NVA prisoners and, reputedly on one occasion, charge into a bunker after landing his helicopter on it.

  22. #22
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    My father gain one of these at Buna in 1943 - taken from a Japanese officer who no longer had any need for it. It is the reason I started my collection.
    “The Australian Light Horse attack on Beersheba was the last important cavalry charge in history and the last to win a resounding victory that altered the course of a war." Alec Hepburn

  23. #23
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    Oral history, as in anecdotes from veterans, tells of a Royal Marine using a Katana in the Falklands campaign. According to quite a few who were there, shooting at the Argentine troops made them hug cover, but attacking with bayonets etc made them give up the ground.

    I think there will always be individuals who carry a blade, but we won't see official or massed use ever again.

  24. #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by George Charlton View Post
    My father gain one of these at Buna in 1943 - taken from a Japanese officer who no longer had any need for it. It is the reason I started my collection.
    I have a small collection of them, what I find fascinating is the variety of blades you find, ranging from genuine medieval era Nihonto, through to factory made blades in high carbon alloy steel.

  25. #25
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    Research indicates the blade was produced in the Tokyo arsenal in 1938 but it is fitted with a short handle a grip lock with the scabbard and a brown leather jacket.

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