In this monthly blog series, our collections team write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. In this month’s blog Henry Yallop, Assistant Curator of European Edged Weapons tells the story of how a British peer partnered with a renowned forger of arms and armour to design a weapon for the 9th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Despite its name, the ‘Welsh knife’ was neither truly Welsh nor a knife. Born out of an attempt to create a viable weapon for close-quarters combat in the trenches of the First World War, this ‘new and improved trench knife’ was patented by Felix Joubert, a renowned restorer of armour who had worked at Windsor Castle and the Wallace Collection. He was also a sometime faker of antique arms and armour and he unscrupulously sold to unsuspecting collectors. The ‘Welsh knife’ was purchased as a weapon for trench fighting between 1916 and 1917 by Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, eighth Baron Howard de Walden, for equipping the battalion he was second in command of.
De Walden was a military man who had served with the 10th Hussars in the Second Boer War and on his return to Britain he joined the 2nd County of London Yeomanry. An accomplished fencer, he was a member the British 1908 Olympic squad and this passion led to his interest in arms and armour, especially that of the Middle Ages and of his native Wales. As a result of this hobby, he commissioned Joubert to make him a bespoke reproduction 14th-century harness so he could better understand how armour worked.
With the outbreak of the First World War, De Walden made repeated requests to find a more active posting and was subsequently sent to Gallipoli. On his return to England in a staff role, he used his family connections to once again be transferred to the front. Soon he was appointed second-in-command of the 9th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, a post he remained in until he was recalled to the War Office in December 1917.
From 1915, there had been an open debate in the press and in military journals about the lack of a standard issue trench knife for British servicemen. It seems that De Walden was moved by such debates and decided to address the matter for his own battalion by privately commissioning Joubert to design a suitable weapon.
Joubert claimed in his patent application that the knife was based on ‘the well known and historic Welsh cledd’. However, no such knife is known to exist and it seems likely that this was a connection Joubert made to appeal to the nationality of the Welch Fusiliers. Instead, Joubert’s design appears to have been based upon the leaf-shaped swords of the late Bronze Age found throughout Europe. His weapon was a much broader, more robust version than the sword types it was based upon and well suited to survive the rigours of life in the trenches.
The addition of a ‘skull-cracker’ pointed pommel meant that even the base of the ‘Welsh knife’ could be used offensively. A wrist loop through the hilt to prevent the weapon being dropped in combat was also added, along with a folding guard to protect the hand. Some blades were engraved ‘DROS URDDAS CYMRU’, which translates as ‘For the honour of Wales.’
These weapons were carried by the battalion’s Lewis gunners at the Battle of Messines (7th-14th June 1917) as they are recorded as having advanced, ‘carrying the strange knives furnished by Lord Howard de Walden’. Lieutenant-Colonel Lloyd-Williams, who later in the War served as second-in-command of the battalion, stated that ‘all machine gunners and bombers were always equipped’ with this knife and ‘every member of a raiding party was so armed’. Surviving numbers corroborate this claim – although rare, more are still known to exist than would have been needed for the battalion’s 17 Lewis gunners.
The effectiveness of the ‘Welsh knife’ as a weapon is subject to much doubt. Lloyd-Williams claims it was used with ‘conspicuous success’ at Messines Ridge but his claim that it was ‘more for bayoneting than cutting’ seems at odds with the weapon’s design. Its broad blade would have worked best as a cutting weapon, and such a wide blade would have made effective thrusting difficult. However the thickness of the blade and pronounced medial ridge would have also hampered its cutting ability. Yet the sheer weight of the ‘Welsh knife’ would have still made it a fearsome weapon, as being constructed entirely of metal, it is much heavier than most contemporary trench clubs and the stiff, thick blade as likely to cause blunt force trauma as to cut or puncture efficiently.
Nevertheless, although this weapon was probably designed more with style than substance in mind, in order to appeal to the tastes of its purchaser, the ‘Welsh knife’ did look forwards as well backwards in terms of the development of arms and armour. The ‘Welsh knife’ probably inspired the design of the Smatchet fighting knife of The Second World War by the renowned hand-to-hand combat expert and innovator, Lieutenant-Colonel William E. Fairbairn.
This year saw the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Messines (7th-14th June). The First World War brought a new age of modern warfare, but one in which some men still fought and died with the most ancient forms of weapons – spare a thought for the brave men who used and faced this weapon in combat.