The Edged Weapons of the First World War…

The up-coming First World War exhibition at Royal Armouries, Leeds will not only look at the firearms used during the War but also the evolution of edged weapons. We spoke to Assistant Curator of European Edged Weapons, Henry Yallop to find out more…

Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement in the research and preparation for the First World War exhibition?
It has been pretty all encompassing for Curator of Firearms Jonathan Ferguson, First World War Researcher, Lisa Traynor and I.  From choosing and acquiring the objects to conducting research, writing and editing all the content for both the physical and online exhibition – it has been non-stop.  We have also been heavily involved in the design of the gallery space and will even be installing it alongside the technicians.  The curatorial team have had a lot of involvement from start to finish.

Henry Yallop, Assistant Curator of European Edged Weapons

Henry Yallop, Assistant Curator of European Edged Weapons holding a Cavalry Trooper’s Sword, British, 1915

Can you tell us about some of the edged weapons that were used during the First World War and how they evolved afterwards?
The most common edged weapon of the War, carried by almost every soldier, was the bayonet.  Various types were used and it was still, despite huge advances in firepower, seen as an essential weapon of the infantryman. After the War the bayonet was viewed more as an auxiliary weapon of last resort. Nevertheless, changes in bayonet design did come about following the experiences of the First World War.

Every nation also started the War with sword, and even lance, armed cavalry.  The ‘cavalry spirit’ was still strong in a lot of armies and some still saw closing to contact the true purpose of cavalry. As such, in the years leading up to the War many nations attempted to improve upon their sword and lance designs.  However, the emergence of tanks during the War and their development afterwards effectively spelt the end of edged weapon armed cavalry, and with it any further development of sword and lance.

Perhaps the most unique edged weapons of the First World War are those that developed out of trench warfare.  Here a range of both improvised and purpose designed edged weapons were developed for the specific trench conditions of hand-to-hand combat.  Some of these were new designs, but others harked back to the medieval period.

What have you found most interesting about working on this project?
The opportunity to work alongside the Firearms team has been very rewarding.  I am fascinated by all arms and armour, so expanding my knowledge outside of my main discipline was excellent.  Although we have all had our main area of interest, working with each other enabled us to expand our individual understanding and the relationship between edged weapons, firearms and armour during this period.

What has been your most interesting discovery?
That there were occasions, despite the modern and changing nature of warfare, that cavalry armed with edged weapons could still have a role to play.  In the Middle East mounted regiments of the British Empire were asking to be issued with swords as late as 1918.  They were still considered essential weapons, and on more than one occasion proved to be uniquely so.

Lord Kitchener's sword and scabbard British, 1898 (XVI.16) © Royal Armouries

Lord Kitchener’s sword and scabbard British, 1898 (XVI.16) © Royal Armouries

What edged weapons can people expect to see in the exhibition?
We are displaying the full range of edged weapons used in the First World War; Swords, lances, bayonets, knives, daggers, clubs, knuckledusters, even a pike and a sharpened spade! Some of these have specific regimental and even personal associations. Although not intended to be used as a weapon, we are very lucky to have Field Marshal Kitchener’s sword, who was such an important figure to the whole of the British Empire’s war effort from 1914-16.

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers: the personal arms and armour of the First World War will go on display at Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds In September 2014. For more details about the First World War Centenary programme, visit the website.