The Martial Chronicles: In the Trenches

I crawled up the trench a few feet and came upon two men trying to strangle each other. I thought, then, of motion pictures…

By: John S. Nash | 11 years ago
The Martial Chronicles: In the Trenches
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

I crawled up the trench a few feet and came upon two men trying to strangle each other. I thought, then, of motion pictures I had watched back home. Here was a more terrible drama than ever the movie camera showed. A bayonet charge is a street fight magnified and made ten thousand times more fierce. It becomes on close range almost impossible to use your bayonets. So we fought with fists and feet, and used our guns, when possible, as clubs.

“Boys’ Book of Battles” by Chelsea Curtis Fraser (1919)

This years Veterans Day marks the 94th year since the signing of the Armistice which on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” silenced the guns of the First World War. That conflict is famous for having ushered in modern warfare, introducing an industrial level of carnage thanks to the use of such advanced weaponry as the machine gun, the flame thrower, poison gas, the airplane, and the tank. Less known is how it resurrected the ancient battlefield arts of hand-to-hand combat and gave birth to what would eventually be known as combatives.

The early days of the war quickly revealed how limited 19th century military tactics were against the new weapons of the 20th century as whole armies of charging soldiers found themselves trapped in barbed wire, gunned down by machine guns and rifle fire, blown up by artillery shells or land mines, and choked on poison gas, without ever coming into close contact with the enemy. Within a few months of the start of hostilities all of the Western Front was caught in a stalemate, as the dreaded “trench warfare” soon took over the battlefield.

This equilibrium led to the rise of what Robert Axelrod termed the “live-and-let-live system” in which the opposing front line soldiers came to an understanding, a tacit truce, in which each side found it prudent to restrain from aggressive actions for fear of triggering a reprisal. For commanders intent on fighting a war, the “live-and-let-live system” was a direct challenge to their authority and their war aims.

What finally destroyed the live-and-let-live system was the institution of a type of incessant aggression that the headquarters could monitor. This was the raid, a carefully prepared attack on enemy trenches which involved from ten to two hundred men. Raiders were ordered to kill or capture the enemy in his own trenches. If the raid was successful, prisoners would be taken; and if the raid was a failure, casualties would be proof of the attempt. There was no effective way to pretend that a raid had been undertaken when it had not.

The live-and-let-live system could not cope with the disruption caused by the hundreds of small raids. [EN1]

Raids were almost exclusively made at night with the raiders faces blackened with “grease-paint or burnt cork”, allowing them to stealthily cross the no man’s land unseen by enemy artillery spotters, snipers, and sentries. A surprise attack on the opposing trenches would follow in which, hopefully, the enemy could be killed or captured without alerting any of their comrades. Afterwhich, the raiders could then safely sneak back to their own lines, shielded by their trailing prisoners if necessary. For such missions the best weapons were those that wouldn’t impede their movement, were quiet, and could be used in close quarters combat.

What are our weapons? The pistol, the rifle, the bullet, the bayonet, knuckle-dusters, hook knives with which to rip up, daggers for the heart, butchers’ knives for the throat, the bomb for random work, once the prisoner has been extracted and bags of aminal thrown into the dugouts, served up with time fuses, to blow whole companies to smithereens.[EN2]

In this new phase of the war, combat regressed to a more primitive state. The bayonet, once written off as outdated following the Boer and Spanish-American Wars, found new life as “The present war has shown that modern science has not done away with hand-to-hand fighting and success in battle may still hinge upon the use of the bayonet.” [EN3]

It soon became clear to soldiers that the rifle was not the best weapon for combat inside the trenches. Where it could it kill at great distances an enemy upon the open battlefield, during the day, in the dark of the night, at close proximity inside the confined earthen entrenchments, it was almost useless.

The weapon that is least needed is a rifle. A club or a sandbag or an Indian battle axe or spiked club is better. A good slugger without any weapon at all may take an adversary’s loaded rifle away from him and knock him down and then kick him to death. [EN4]

The preferred firearm of the trench fighters were the shotgun and revolver. But these were less desired than even more primitive ones, since their use would alert the enemy. In this most modern of war, soldiers quickly relearned the lesson of their medieval predecessors, arming themselves with an odd assortment of mélée weapon with which to butcher their opponents.

Raiders sallied forth from their underground dugouts armed with various bayonets, swords, hatchets, clubs, coshes, knobkerries, truncheons, hammers, daggers, pick-axes, push-knives, staves, and steel bars. The edges of entrenching shovels were ground to razor sharpness. Trench raiding clubs were both homemade and mass produced, some of which were lead filled, had steel studs or spikes hammered into them, or had their heads wrapped in barbed wire. Men carried brass knuckles (or “knuckle-dusters”) and a wide array of knifes with them. Sometimes these were combined: the US army issued trench-knives fitted with metal knuckle guards and “skull crusher” or “walnut-opener” pommels to their infantry.

Inside the trenches centuries of advancement in warfare was being discarded in favor of the older lessons of mélée combat.

Not since the Middle Ages has a knowledge of this method of fighting been so essential as it is to-day. As the great war progresses it is becoming more and more apparent that the expertness and skill of the individual are playing an increasingly large part in the determination of the final outcome. [EN5]

The samurai of Japan had originally developed jujutsu for use in such close combat that even hand held weapons could prove ineffective. The knights of Europe had a similar martial art in kampfringen. Both disciplines used throws, holds, and strikes to gain an advantage over a better armed or armored opponent . With the introduction of rapid firing and more accurate firearms such hand-to-hand fighting was thought to be a thing of the past, but the War had resurrected them.

Between the British and German modern machine warfare wherein every man was supposed to have become a pawn without initiative of his own has been developing, perhaps, the deadliest form of sport imagination can conceive – where every combatant places his cunning, his strength and his skill in hand-to-hand fighting against those of his adversary.

All of the elements of boxing, wrestling, fencing and mob tactics, plus the stealth of the Indian, who crept up on a camp on the plains, and the team work of a professional baseball nine, are valuable to the players. [EN6]

While the armies of Europe had not been prepared for the level and intensity of hand-to-hand combat, they also had not been completely caught off guard. Many of their military strategist had noted the close quarters fighting that had taken place during the Russo-Japanese War, and the importance jujutsu training amongst the Japanese troops had played. Based on this lesson the Emperor had ordered that all officers in the German army and navy have “acquaintance with the methods of jiu-jitsu.” [EN7]

The United States had made a similar decision in 1905, when President Roosevelt recommended that jujutsu “be incorporated with courses of boxing and wrestling at the national institutions” of the West Point and Annopolis Military and Naval Academies. [EN8] Jujutsu was quickly abandoned, but both catch-as-catch-can wrestling and boxing were taught to the young officers. In any case, for the Americans, as with all the other nations, any preparation for future conflicts involving hand-to-hand combat was limited to their officers and not the vast majority of soldiers who would actually be doing the fighting.

Eventually all the armies began to rectify this oversight, although the British were particularly slow to adapt to realities of trench combat, having ignored early offers from “jiujitsuist and fencing masters” to instruct their foot soldiers in the proper use of bayonet and hand-to-hand combat.[EN9] But soon even they couldn’t ignore the simple fact that trench combat, meant close quarter combat. This in turn revealed another reality.

After a bayonet attack in nine cases out of ten trench or open warfare the men grapple. The man who has never been there before doesn’t know what to do. [EN10]

While at first soldiers were being armed with more and more hand-held mêlée weapons, it was soon realized that merely being properly armed was not enough to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The psychological dread of being horrendously butchered or bludgeoned in the middle of the night proved too much for most soldiers. When finally faced with such a situation for which they had received no training, “the soldier has almost always lost his head and confined himself with struggling uselessly, because he did not know any blows or holds which would have sufficed until someone came to the aid of one or the other of the adversaries.” [EN11]

As men with a background in combat sports began returning from night raids at greater number than those lacking, it soon became obvious to both the troops in the field and their commanding officers that some knowledge in hand-to-hand combat was beneficial for the survival and success of a soldier on the front lines. Even a small amount of training proved incredibly helpful, and thus by “the third year of the war, when hand-to-hand combats became the rule rather than the exception, English officers stated… that their men had found the application of a few jiu-jitsu tricks in grappling to be of great service in vanquishing of their opponent.”

By 1916 each of the belligerents were offering their soldiers at least some basic training in armed and unarmed close quarters combat. The Arditi, Italy’s elite raiders, took the primitive nature of this new combat to heart by studying Fiore dei Liberi, a medieval master of arms. The French, in turn, developed one of the most extensive programs, based primarily on jujutsu [EN12] along with their own homegrown savate.

There were a couple of well-known savate men in the next company and I saw one of them get under Fritz’s guard with his foot and, believe me, there was some force in that kick. He must have driven the German’s chin clear through the back of his neck. [EN13]

When the United States entered the war in April of 1917, they did so with a military that was by almost all measures far behind the other Great Powers. The exception was in hand-to-hand combat. For some years previous to their entry they had been developing their own program while also making great use of their allies experiences, especially those of the Canadians (who were generally considered the best of the trench raiders [EN14]) and the French, whose hand-to-hand training program they used as a model for their own.

We have adopted real hand-to-hand fighting, such as is imposed the circumstances of this war. We require men to kill their adversaries in this new corps-á-corps work….Boxing is all right, so is the savate, or French substitute for boxing, so is wrestling, and so is also, of course, the Japanese jiu-jitsu. All come into our system of instruction. [EN15]

The focus would be not on making American soldiers experts in unarmed combat, but giving them enough experience and skill to greatly improve their survivability.

If all failed the raider was encouraged to resort to ‘hand-to-hand fighting and various jiu-jitsu methods of offence and self-defence’,[EN16]

One of the more important figures in the development of the American’s combat training programs was John J. O’Brien. As as a civilian he had been among the first Americans to extensively study jujutsu in Japan, having even reportedly served as Inspector of Police at Nagasaki for 10 years before returning the US in 1900. [EN17] He was perhaps best known as being the man who introduced President Theodore Roosevelt to the martial art in early 1902. [EN18] Thanks to such contacts, in 1910 he was recruited by the Army, made a Captain, and given the charge of developing a hand-to-hand fighting program for their soldiers.

The program he and others came up with combined boxing, wrestling, and jujutsu.

Boxing and hand-to-hand fighting have been organized under skilled instructors in the majority of army camps. In many cases boxing has been made compulsory because it develops qualities fundamental for success in bayonet fighting. The work in hand-to-hand fighting consists in training a man in a few simple but clever wrestling tricks which will be useful to him, if disarmed in combat in a fight, in the dark on patrol or on trench raid. Entirely apart from a gain in technical proficiency, the man versed in boxing and hand-to-hand fighting acquires a large amount of confidence.[EN19]

Although boxing was given special attention, it was primary for the fact that not only could it be used as form of unarmed combat but also because “the science of boxing, as Dr. Raycraft has pointed out, is intimately related to the business of bayonet-fighting.”[EN20]

For the unarmed portion of training, most American camps had instructors that focused on grappling. The common thread amongst the various trainers, many of whom were recruited by O’Brien, was that they were all based on “rough-and-tumble” fighting i.e. all-in, anything goes streetfighting. With regards to strikes, most instructed their charges to ignore their boxing training

“Never use your fists, as the fist is the least effective of nature’s weapons. Especially without gloves it is practically impossible to put an enemy hors de combat with the fist…. Nature’s best weapons are: The Feet, the Knees, the Head, the Elbows.” [E21]

Among the more noteworthy trainers of the US troops was A. E. Marriott who’s fighting system incorporated “Greco-Roman, catch-as-catch-can, and jiu-jitsu wrestling” {EN22], Billy Sandow, the manager and trainer of Ed “Strangler” Lewis who developed a “rough-and-tumble” grappling system based extensively on catch-as-catch can fouls[EN23], and perhaps most influential, Allen Corstophin Smith. Smith had been recruited by O’Brien and given the rank of Captain after receiving his black belt in January of 1916 from the Kodokan in Japan. From 1917 to 1918 he served alongside former middleweight boxing champion Mike Gibbons as the hand-to-hand combat instructor at Camp Benning.

During the First World War millions were introduced and trained in the martial arts. Perhaps, at no time before had so many been instructed in unarmed combat or had such a massive laboratory for life or death situations been undertaken. Yet, in a cruel irony, those most likely to have learned hand-to-hand combat were most likely to be killed or maimed, being the ones assigned to the front lines or sent on the raids. The War thus wiped out its greatest martial arts generation as quickly as it created it.

The lessons learned during the war were not completely lost though. It was during the war that Bill Underwood came up with his Combato, and where Viktor Spiridonov and Vasil Oshchenko developed the theories they would use to create Samooborona Bez Oruzhiya. What was learned in the trenches and battlefields of the First World War would be put to use to help create the British, Canadian, and American close-quarters combat program, the predecessor of our modern combatives.

The price for such knowledge would be great, and those who paid should not be forgotten.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“In Flanders Field” by John McCrae

Special thanks to Thomas Nash for helping with the research.


“Raiders Prepare to Fare Forth on a Foray” via

“Trench Knife” via

“Hip Break” from from Hand-to-Hand Fighting By A. E. Marriott 1918

“Plate 13.” from How to Out-Think Your Opponent by Prof. Al Williams, 1918

“Boxing Applied to Bayonet Fighting” from Boxing for Beginners by William J. Jacomb (1918)

“Front Strangle” and “Back Strangle” from Self Defense for the Individual by Billy C. Sandow, 1919

“One of Captain Smith’s Classes” from

“Strangle and Head Butt” and “Hammerlock” from Self Defense for the Individual by Billy C. Sandow, 1919


EN 1: The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod (1984)

EN 2: A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land by F. P. Crozier (1930)

EN 3: Bayonet Fighting and Physical Training, by Major Percy Hobbs of the Canadian Forces (1917)

EN 4: Trench Raids Become Keenest War “Sport”, New York Times – May 30, 1916.

EN 5: Hand-to-Hand Fighting By A. E. Marriott (1918)

EN 6: “Raiding Trenches Dangerous Sport” Associated Press, The News and Courier – June 8, 1916

EN 7: Kaiser Order Jiu-Jitsu, New York Times – Feb. 13, 1908

EN 8: “Professor Yamashita Goes to Washington by Joseph R. Svinth, Journal of Combative Sport (2009)

EN 9: “BAYONET IS PLAYING AN IMPORTANT PART” Associated Press, Tropical Sun – Mar. 11, 1915

EN 10: Bayonet Fighting and Physical Training, by Major Percy Hobbs of the Canadian Forces (1917)

EN 11: Hand-to-Hand Fighting By A. E. Marriott (1918)

EN 12: French hand-to-hand combat training in the First World War made extensive use of jujutsu.

EN 13: “Gunnar Depew” by Albert N. Depew, The Pentwater News – Oct, 4, 1918

EN 14: Canuck’s Experts in Trench Raids, Quebec Telegraph – Feb 23, 1917

EN 15; Our Letter From Paris, Medical Record (1918)

EN 16: World War I Trench Warfare (2): 1916-18By Stephen Bull, Osprey Publishing LTD (2002)

EN 17: Theodore Roosevelts private letters

EN 18: A Complete Course of Jiu-jitsu and Physical Culture by Prof. John J. O’Brien (1905)

EN 19: Athletics in the Army and Navy, The Modern City – Oct, 1918

EN 20: “Athletic for the Army” By Raymond B. Fosdick and Edward F. Allen The Century, Volume 96, May to October, 1918

EN 21: “Methods 0f Hand-to-Hand Fighting” by Lieutenant Bernard Desouches (1921)

EN 22:Hand-to-Hand Fighting By A. E. Marriott 1918

EN 23: Self Defense for the Individual by Billy C. Sandow, 1919

Share this story

About the author
John S. Nash
John S. Nash

More from the author

Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories