Trench Knives; A Soldiers Best Friend
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Trench Knives; A Soldiers Best Friend

The fascinating thing about trench knives is their overall design reeks brutality and seems to just scream violence. In the modern military everything is sleek, black, and modern, the trench knife was big and brutal. Most people picture the United States M1918 trench knife when the word trench knife is brought up. The trench warfare of the first World War was a violent and brutal place, in between the nerve gas, and the new machine gun, a lot of fighting was done with bayonets, buttstocks, bare hands and of course the trench knife.

Trench knives were not common issue at first. As time passed and the war raged on a need for close range fighting implements aka knives and clubs was quickly developed. The bolt action rifles of the time were long and cumbersome, slow to fire, and overall not suited for close range fighting. Even with a bayonet the rifle was too long and unwieldy for the close range hell that was trench warfare. A knife needed to be developed, and this knife needed to be a weapon, not a tool. The first trench knives were made by unit blacksmiths and creative soldiers who took their bayonets and fashioned them into some more suitable for social work. Some soldier bought blades when they had the chance, and for one of the only times in the twentieth century a knife was as valuable as a gun in war.

The first US military issued trench knife was the model 1917. This model used a wooden grip, and utilized a knuckle guard to the hand a bit more protected in knife fights. The blade was a thin stiletto suitable for really nothing else but stabbing. The Model 1917 proved to be somewhat weak and the blade tended to break when it met helmets, rifle stocks, or bone. The 1917 was replaced by the model 1918. The Model 1918 featured an improved blade, a bit wider and a bit stronger than the model 1917.

The Model 1918 also featured a complete knuckle duster as a handguard. When first looking at the weapon it is easy to assume that this was designed as a weapon. This isn’t actually true, the design was to protect the user's hand, and aid in maintain a grip. In a close range fight to the death a lot of things can happen, and a lot of those things can cause you to lose your grip. With the knuckle duster in placed you could take a blow to the head, trip into the trench and not worry about losing your grip. Be real, stabbing someone will probably get you bloody, especially your hands, and the last thing you want is to lose the grip on your knife.

Certainly a blow from the knuckle duster would be painful, but hitting someone with the knuckle duster could be equally painful for the user. In fact using the knuckle duster could result in breaking your hand and fingers quite easily, so it’s not an amateur's weapon.

The blade of the model 1918 retained the straight stiletto design, which is used primarily as a stabbing implement. By making the blade a bit wider the knife could do some limited cutting and slashing. The blade was also a bit tougher, but was still primarily designed for combat. This meant as a utilitarian tool it was somewhat weak. This was not a knife designed for digging, beating in tent stakes, or making them. This knife was designed for fighting and that was it. The pommel even had a small point, designed for bashing. The M1918 secured its place as an invaluable trench warfare weapon, and its unique design cemented the weapon in the minds of military historians.

The Soldier's Best Friend

Another trench knife bears mentioning is the French Nail. The French nail is the premier example of soldier ingenuity. A French nail started life as a barb wire stake, something that was extremely common along the front. These stakes were sharpened into a point, designed for stabbing and stabbing only. The handle was formed by heating and bending the stake into a somewhat round shape. These crude weapons became a favorite weapon of the French. Often soldiers would and could carry several, discarding them as they broke, or when they got stuck in flesh.

Because of the nature of the French nail there was no one design or size. They were often made by whatever the unit blacksmith, or the soldier could fashion. It is hard to imagine soldiers these days being forced to craft a knife to win a war, but that was the true nature of the first word war.

The Enemy

The Germans were actually the first to really take the need for a combat knife seriously. They issued their trench knife in more numbers than the French and Americans, but their knife was designed for both fighting and for utility purposes. The French, British, and Americans issued knives during the war, the Germans came to the war with knives.

The German Nahkampfmesser knife was a simple design, a wood handle with a blade approximately six inches in length. Since mass manufacturing of these items was still done by craftsmen they varied a bit in length width, but were mostly the same. The blade was straight, and could be used for both stabbing and slashing. The blade was a single edge, with a false double edge. German soldiers would occasionally have the same knife with a double edge, whether this was a soldier’s modification, or an oddity from the factory is unknown.

Bloody and Brutal

Trench knives varied greatly from army to army, or even soldier to soldier. They were so invaluable that troops would form them from whatever they had. Trench warfare was brutal and bloody, and the trench knife became a valuable weapon to any soldier looking to make it home. As war changed the use of fighting knives is seen less and less, and the First World War was the coup de grace for combat knives.


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