Poetry about a decidedly unpoetic modality of war
In the anthology we have, the poem The Kiss is described neutrally as “resulting from” a lecture that young infantry officer Siegfried Sassoon received early in the war, on April 25, 1916. “For close on an hour he talked, and all who listened caught fire from his enthusiasm,” Sassoon wrote about the lecture, in which a fierce officer from a Highland regiment repeatedly stated that, “The bullet and the bayonet are brother and sister.”
The line haunted Sassoon, and he used it first in this poem, which would become controversial later, and the literal meaning of which he would come to disavow, and later, he used it a second time, in his de facto “memoir”. First, the poem:
To these I turn, in these I trust
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty clean from rust.
He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.
Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.
This became somewhat controversial, to Sassoon’s irritation, and he wrote the Highland Major (so identified) into his roman à clef, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, which was written from a more mature viewpoint, and one less enthusiastic about the idea of war in general and its infantry application in particular.
George Simmers wrote a customarily insightful post on the poem and Sassoon’s intent back in 2009. He rounded up some of the criticism, also, including Sassoon’s late-life protestation of the poem’s satirical intent:
Robert Graves claimed that the poem should be taken at face value as a celebration of violence, and Adrian Caesar sees it as the expression of a sadistic sexuality. Sassoon towards the end of his life wrote ‘I am sick of telling people that The Kiss was intended as a satire on bayonet-fighting, which I loathed.’
Robert Graves was, of course, another of the leading war poets of the day (a frontline officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, like Sassoon, and also a friend of Sassoon who would save him from court-martial, but that’s another story). Graves went on to produce much best-loved literature which remains in print, including I, Claudius and a sequel. We hadn’t heard of Adrian Caesar, and weren’t surprised to look him up and see he wasn’t any of that, but a living baby boomer poetry critic pontificating from a professorship in New South Wales, and writing literary fiction of the sort that wins prizes, yet sells in the low double-digits of copies, because only the sort of readers that sit on prize juries make it to the end. To most modern professors, everything is sex and “gender” and class, in this age of shallow understanding.
Simmers’s own insights are much more interesting than Graves’s or Caesar’s, and are solidly grounded in his post-doctoral study of British war literature. We recommend you Read The Whole Thing™.
Now, about the reported Death of the Bayonet
We are told, these days, that the bayonet belongs to the past. But this is hardly a novelty. The machine gun, and air power, and modern artillery, and storm-trooper tactics, and fire and maneuver, all rendered bayonets obsolete before.
Until combat demonstrated that they weren’t.
The classic example being Britain: as early as 1950, the British Army — the very one reveling in Sweet Sister’s “downward darting kiss” above — was done with bayonets. The EM2 originally had no provisions for fixing a bayonet (which is always awkward on a bullpup weapon), but conservative military minds insisted that the Lee-Enfield Mk IV bayonet lug be adapted to the experimental .280 rifle. In the end, Britain adopted a variation of the FN-FAL, which they provided with a knife-bayonet, the L1A3, much like the last couple issued for the Lee-Enfield. (The Belgian design for a bayonet was an odd thing whose tubular grip slipped around the flash hider).
Again in the 1970s, Britain planned to go to a bullpup, and at the time of the spring 1982 South Atlantic War, the SA80 was nearing production. Bayonets were used to great effect by the Scots Guards and the Paras; Platoon sergeant Ian McKay of B Coy 3 Para received the Victoria Cross posthumously for leading a bayonet charge at Mount Longdon, and the Scots went to cold steel when ammo ran low on Mount Tumbledown. As a result of the great effect of the bayonet in clearing Argentine trenches and inducing Argentine surrenders, the new gun was hastily redesigned with a bayonet attachment before going into production as the L85 in 1985. The bayonet is called the L3A1. The media are still eager to entomb the bayonet (for example, in this 2002 story in the Telegraph), but the Army is not.
Britain is not alone in retreating from a premature declaration of the obsolescence of the bayonet. Melvin Johnson originally designed his eponymous semi-automatic rifle without any provision for one, and was forced to add one afterwards. A flimsy arrangement, so as not to interfere with the recoiling mass of the recoil-operated weapon, it was one of the things that military testers really didn’t like about the 1941 Johnson. At the same time, just before entering World War II, the US Army an early example of what would come to be known as a Personal Defense Weapon. Small, light and not intended as a primary infantry combat weapon, the M1 Carbine was never intended to have a bayonet. A great hue and cry from the field changed that, and a bayonet based on the M3 fighting knife was hastily adapted to the little gun.
It’s unlikely the British will give up their Sweet Sister any time soon. In 2004, they used bayonets in Iraq to rout Sadrist militia; the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders — perhaps a descendant of Sassoon’s “Highland Major’s” regiment — killed some 35 with a full-on bayonet charge.
This brings us to what the bayonet is. In the early years of firearms, the bayonet turned a discharged weapon from a marginally useful club to a more practical, for medieval and Renaissance warfare, pike. As late as 1900 the bayonet was thought to be fully one-half of the infantryman’s tactical armament. But of course, that was mistaken: the bolt-action, magazine rifle, the Maxim machine gun, and the barbed-wire entanglement, were soon to demonstrate that cold steel and élan were no match for 20th-Century defensive arms in prepared positions. This was clear in the siege of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese war, although some particularly blockheaded European officers couldn’t learn from foreign experience, and would have to have their own, to the detriment of a generation.
But the bayonet wasn’t obsolete, because of, as we’ve said, what the bayonet is. And what it is, is a psychological weapon. The Argentine draftees around Port Stanley in 1982 faced the horrors of modern war with fatalism, if not exactly equanimity. But two things put them to flight, or surrender: thoughts of Gurkha’s kukris, and thoughts of cold steel bayonets. Likewise, that 2004 British unit in Iraq did not so much increase their combat power when they fixed bayonets, as they increased their psychological dominance of the battlefield. The psychological effect of the bayonet is two-sided: it strikes fear into the enemy at point end, and stirs confidence in the soldier behind the bayonet. Such de minimis subtleties are the foundation stones of many a victory.
The bayonet today
It is most unlikely the British Army will field a rifle without a bayonet in the foreseeable future — at least, until the subalterns of 2004 dodder off on to the Retired List. Ivan, for his part, never gave up the bayonet and regarded Western attempts to abandon it as typical capitalistic decadence.
The US military has taken, as one might expect, several diverse stands, despite a history replete with bayonet charges. Today, the US Army and USMC have taken different approaches to the bayonet. Until well into the GWOT, the Army still required recruits to receive bayonet training and run the Bayonet Assault Qualification Course. (About.com has a circa-1990s basic training battalion bayonet-training SOP with helpful tips like “check the dummies for nesting hornets and wasps… do not allow the soldiers to use dummies with nesting insects.” Hoot).
The BAQC was run with a standard bayonet and a “rubber duck,” a rubber M16 molded around a shot-out M16 barrel. The targets were 3-dimensional rubber Ivans with a Russian-style helmet and an AK molded into them. There is a touch of irony in the AK: the Army’s M9 bayonet is a descendant of both the Buck “Buckmaster” knife the Navy SEALs flirted with in the early 80s, and the AKM wirecutter bayonet.
Because new things must be taught in Army basic training, bayonet training’s been cut, like other obsolete skills such as much close-quarter drill. The BAQC is no longer required, but the use of bayonets as knives, as secondary and defensive weapons for the majority of soldiers who do not carry a pistol, is taught in combatives training. It doesn’t necessarily help, though: the Army tends not to issue the M9 bayonet to soldiers downrange, and a modern tactical sling is inimical to bayonet fighting, which requires a much greater degree of free motion with the bayonet.
The Marines take a different approach. The Marines’ official website says flatly, “Every Marine receives bayonet training in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) and on the Bayonet Assault Course in Recruit Training.” The Marine program includes bayonet mechanical training, a Bayonet Assault Course much like the deprecated Army one (but apparently run with real rifles, and with targets made of stacks of tires rather than rubber ducks and fancy molded Ivans), and three levels of pugil stick fighting. In the MCMAP, Marines must master a variety of nonfirearms combat techniques to qualify for a colored belt in the oriental martial art style.
The Marines formerly issued the Army’s M7 bayonet, but now have their own bayonet, the OKC-3S. “OKC” is for the maker, Ontario Knife Company. The OKC-3S borrows some ideas from the Army M9 (for which Ontario has been a contract manufacturer) and the traditional USMC fighting knife, which is called the Ka-bar after its original maker, but which has also been made by Ontario, Camillus and other contractors for many years. The OKC-3S differs from the M9 in having a 1″ longer blade, no wire-cutting capability, no fuller, and serrations (“rip teeth”) on the blade instead of sawteeth on top, and styling that provides a nod towards the traditional Marine fighting knife.
All services still have quantities of the M7, a direct descendant of the WWII M3 fighting knife via the M4 bayonet for the M1 carbine and the postwar M5 for the M1 rifle and M6 for the M14. The Army still has M6 bayonets in inventory, also. The M7, M8 and OKC-3S bayonets fit all M16 and M4 series weapons, so long as the M203 grenade launcher is not fitted. They will not fit M4 clones with 16″ barrels properly.
Colt also seems to think the bayonet is not dead yet — it has introduced a new commercial model, the CT415, which it produces in China (!), but to the best of our knowledge has had no military sales of it. Like the others, it will fit a 20″ AR or 14.5″ M4, but will not fit a 16″ gun properly (see image for why. That 1.5″ really costs you).
It has been nearly a century since Siegfried Sassoon penned his enigmatic poem — celebrating the bayonet or decrying it, which is today as much in the mind of the reader as it was then in the mind of old “Sassons.” But despite many premature obituaries, Sister Steel is still as much a part of warfare as she ever was. Guard her beauty clean from rust.