Discussion Why is a Bayonet Charge Terrifying enough to break formations of disciplined soldiers? Even with aggressive nonstop volley fire?

LesBrain

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Jul 17, 2020
This one thing that I've been wondering for years.

I remember 4 years ago, the History Channel showed an Episode on their TV Series "Human Weapon" which showcases various martial arts around the world. This episode I speak of went over MCMAP, the Hand-to-Hand system of the United States Marine Corps.

During the episode, there was one instance where they speak of Marines being pinned under fire in some third world country. After prolonged exposure to enemy fire and being stuck in the same position, the Marines finally got fed up and equipped bayonets in on their guns and charged out to their attackers.Despite such an insane tactic, the enemy that was pinning them (who were armed with automatic machine guns) abandoned their suppression and fled from the area out of fear..Granted these were poorly-trained third world armies but still.,,,,,,,

I read of in Napoleonic Warfare that entire units and even whole armies would literally abandon their formation and flee the battlefield out of fear when men charged with Bayonets. I read this was a comment tactic of Napoleon and to people's surprise it worked so well against other armies. Only the MOST DISCIPLINED and DEVOTED like the British army was able to with stand this charge without collapsing and it would be late in the War when European nations finally realized Napoleon CAN be beaten that this tactic lost its effectiveness.

Even in World War 2 I read of PROFESSIONAL and WELL-TRAINED American soldiers literally abandoning their position out of fear when the Japanese would commit their Banzai Charges.

The first battle in The Red Badge of Courage portrays this perfectly when the protagonist ran away as the Confederate Army charged despite the fact he hadn't even fired several shots yet and the Confederates were still distance away.

How and why would a Bayonet Charge be so terrifying even in this modern age?I mean when kids today hear of this, they would go all like "you have a gun-shoot the Edited. with it as he runs at you!!!!" and indeed playing a video game would lead you to believe its so easy to fire at hordes of men charging at you to hit you with a bayonet or other melee weapon.
 
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FedericoFCavada

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The muzzle-loading, black powder weapons used for centuries in often ghastly and protracted battles were rapidly fouled, and became ever more difficult to use. They were inaccurate. They were sighted for fully 160 yards range, but had no rear sight, and the typical command was to avoid wasting ammunition and "wait until you see the whites of their eyes." The flints began to degrade, and after 20-50 shots had to be replaced. So having the ability to turn the musket into a spear or short pike was important for many reasons, primarily to use against being ridden down and lanced or sabered by cavalry.

After pouring a couple volleys into the enemy ranks, it was often thought desirous to charge with bayonets fixed. This prevented your army from standing there and taking it as much, or even worse, than they were dishing it out. The bayonet attack triggered a fight or flight response in the enemy. They could take a look at the cold steel, and decide to precipitously flee and maybe fight another day, or they could close and charge too and have it out with cold steel like something in the Middle Ages or early modern period.

By the time of the U.S. Civil War, the bayonet's days were mostly over. The bayonet continues to be issued and used because it promotes aggression, and reaffirms the desire to close with and destroy the enemy. As war became ever more "advanced" and weapons became much more lethal, efficient, powerful, and longer ranged, a crisis arose for military tacticians and strategists. Technology seemed to have overwhelmed human beings. This was continuously reinforced by slaughters of traditional or tribal societies in European colonies. Think Omdurman. Think "Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun; and they have nought." So some strategists, including infamously in red pants-wearing France, literally thought that only the human will and aggressive human hinge factor was capable of winning. So such officials doubled down on the bayonet. It was like they thought the Zulu accomplishment at Isandhlwana in 1879 was a recipe of sorts. WWI nailed very, very many nails in very, very many coffins due to that idea that "guts" or élan/ fighting spirit could overcome weapons technology. Small unit fire-and-movement tactics, tanks, portable firepower, etc. all were developed due to the impasse. In the WWII Pacific War, the Japanese took the idea of aggressive fighting spirit and sheer human will to its logical conclusion with the so-called Banzai attacks--before adopting a defense in depth to make an attacker literally root them out from underground--and much more effectively with Kamikaze attacks using obsolescent aircraft on one way suicide bombings of American surface ships. In a handful of cases--and it is a very small handful--the use of cold steel while closing with the enemy can still trigger a "fight or flight" response.
 
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Pat Answer

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The fear that the attacker is not going to stop, despite all the defender has done to stop him, was enough to shake most unit's morale.

Agreed. Key here being unit morale. A wall of big and mean-looking dudes moving straight at you with the intent of making you bleed and die might not shake you if your dander is up but it might shake some of the buddies next to you... As said in the OP, discipline and devotion in spades gives a unit a chance if firepower wasn't convincing enough.
 
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mofederal

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What about men running from the Australian Light Horse charging on horses at you carrying bayonets, rifles and pistols. Fear of steel, and the certainness of a slow painful death, seemed to be a big motivator. Sometimes soldiers did not run from a bayonet charge, but stood, and just not the British. I tend to think cannister and case shot can take the starch out of the sight of cold steel. I believe the final Union assault by Union troops at Petersburg by the Vermont Brigade on Boyden Plank Road was supposed to be mostly a bayonet attack, so as not to alert the Confederate defenders. I am sure a line of men coming at you with bayonets was very intimidating.
 

Taylin

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You don't see the bullet that kills you, but you **** sure see the man sprinting towards you.

Everytime the enemy fires a volley, you may or may not be shot. Let's say you've been in many battles and luckily have been unscathed, you've become adjusted to being shot at.

I think the bayonet charge brings with it a feeling of certainty in the minds of the enemy that they are going to be injured or killed if they don't move. No ifs ands or buts.
 
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Pat Answer

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Great points brought up by everyone. They all illustrate the main idea of combat: get individual soldiers to react to danger with I might be killed rather than we stand together... And that is why the main idea of training is unit cohesion over individuality - to delay that breaking point as long as possible.

(Who saw Gladiator?: “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together. Do you understand? If we stay together, we survive.”)
 

FedericoFCavada

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If I remember correctly there was a bayonet attack in the British/Argentine
war in the 1980s.

John
There was certainly an incident where a group of Ghurkas was landed, late during the operations, and when these Nepalese troops renowned for their ferocity and carrying the kukri head chopper attacked, they discovered that the freezing Argentine conscripts had snuck away during the night and fled. Sometimes reputations precede you...

Mount Tumbledown--South Atlantic War 1982

More recently--in 2004 near Basra in Shia Muslim southern Iraq the British managed a "proper" bayonet attack to disperse some insurgents assailing one of their checkpoints--Checkpoint "Danny Boy"--
2004 Danny Boy
 

poorjack

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In modern gunfighting schools, it's a proven fact that an attacker armed with just a knife inside of 20ft is going to kill the guy with a gun. Let's extrapolate that to a battlefield where a mass of guys with big knives on the end of heavy sticks are running at you with blood in their eyes and you can't shoot them fast enough. It's a primal fear of being stabbed that is functioning then. If you miss so much as one, you're going to get stuck by one seriously angry opponent and that opponent's side has determined to go all in to win. Your side have the same level of resolve?

Looking further back into history, the bayonet is only a method of transforming a gun into a more primitive weapon- the spear. Contrary to general popular opinion, the spear is not just a throwing weapon. You throw it, and you're disarmed on a battlefield. Roman soldiers carried two types of spears, one is the Pilum, a short spear designed to be thrown at an enemy to disable his use of a shield and maybe wound him. After that, the Roman soldier would close and finish with the gladius. Other roman spears were not designed to be thrown. Other cultures taught using the spear as a standoff weapon and it's especially effective in a shield wall formation. Make it even longer and you have a pike, another standoff weapon with lineage going back thousands of years. Another way to think of it, you have a soldier trained to use a staff as a weapon. He's going to be darn effective within the radius of the staff. Now add a sharp knife to the end of that staff and you'll get the "point"
 

Belfoured

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Agreed. Key here being unit morale. A wall of big and mean-looking dudes moving straight at you with the intent of making you bleed and die might not shake you if your dander is up but it might shake some of the buddies next to you... As said in the OP, discipline and devotion in spades gives a unit a chance if firepower wasn't convincing enough.
Unit morale is an excellent point. It was probably the deciding factor in 18th century warfare, such as in the AWI - which is why the casualty counts in AWI battles were generally low. The range and reloading time for smoothbore muskets meant that often the defender could only get off one volley. I haven't seen any statistics (if such were even kept) but I'll wager the number of actual bayonet wounds in the AWI was low - because by that point the tactic had already produced the desired result.
 

PatW

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Civil war surgeons often claimed to have never even seen a bayonet wound and statistics seem to bear out the notion that bayonet wounds were a small fraction of wounds from bullets and artillery. So it would seem that the bayonet was not really a significant part of civil war combat.

But if we backtrack to the English soldier armed with the brown Bess something interesting happens. English infantry doctrine was to pour in rapid volleys at close range of the opposing infantry. When they began to waver, the English infantry would attack with the bayonet. Even in those wars, bayonet wounds were quite rare even though bayonet attacks were part of the doctrine and apparently often resorted to. The reason for few wounds is when wavering infantry see a bayonet attack coming at them, their impulse is turn and run. They do not hang around to get wounded. And if they cannot escape, they probably surrender.

Bayonet attacks occurred much more rarely in the American Civil War. But a stubborn line of infantry could hang on. Just standing around and shooting at them until they were all dead could be expensive in time and lives. Often a bayonet attack was the most effective way of dealing with a stubborn and outnumbered foe. Also, even troops that were outnumbered could make a successful bayonet attack against a numerically superior foe and it often worked. I suppose if you are in the battle line and a bunch of guys with bayonets start to run at you, your first impulse is not to take a count of the opponents. I would think if one was standing there, it would probably look as if quite a few of those guys were coming right at you.
 

Belfoured

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Civil war surgeons often claimed to have never even seen a bayonet wound and statistics seem to bear out the notion that bayonet wounds were a small fraction of wounds from bullets and artillery. So it would seem that the bayonet was not really a significant part of civil war combat.

But if we backtrack to the English soldier armed with the brown Bess something interesting happens. English infantry doctrine was to pour in rapid volleys at close range of the opposing infantry. When they began to waver, the English infantry would attack with the bayonet. Even in those wars, bayonet wounds were quite rare even though bayonet attacks were part of the doctrine and apparently often resorted to. The reason for few wounds is when wavering infantry see a bayonet attack coming at them, their impulse is turn and run. They do not hang around to get wounded. And if they cannot escape, they probably surrender.

Bayonet attacks occurred much more rarely in the American Civil War. But a stubborn line of infantry could hang on. Just standing around and shooting at them until they were all dead could be expensive in time and lives. Often a bayonet attack was the most effective way of dealing with a stubborn and outnumbered foe. Also, even troops that were outnumbered could make a successful bayonet attack against a numerically superior foe and it often worked. I suppose if you are in the battle line and a bunch of guys with bayonets start to run at you, your first impulse is not to take a count of the opponents. I would think if one was standing there, it would probably look as if quite a few of those guys were coming right at you.
In the AWI anecdotal evidence is that firefights occurred at 150 yards or less. The British used a consistent tactic of one volley at about 100 yards and then the bayonet. While it appears that a well-trained European army could deliver 2 rounds a minute in battle (as opposed to 4 or so on the drill field), that level of efficiency may not have applied to their American opponents, at least until the von Steuben reforms.
 
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mo
Math, there's a point where one can tell they aren't going to be stopped. One sees how many are coming, and the rate they are falling.

I've read German accounts on the eastern front, where they would describe waves......initially it's a slaughter as bodies pile up to your front, but if they keep coming machine gun barrels overheat, ammo becomes depleted........
 

Cavalier

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Jul 20, 2019
If I remember correctly there was a least one colonel killed at Gettysburg by a bayonet wound.

Isnt there a quote of Napoleon that goes something like "In war the spiritual is to the physical as three is to one"?

John
 

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