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The Martial Chronicles: In the Trenches

Cageside Features Guest Columnist John S. Nash, brings us another feature edition of his fascinating series chronicling the origins of MMA. With Veterans Day having been recently commemorated here in the States, this time he takes a look back at the hand-to-hand combat of World War I.

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"Life in the Trenches" - French 87th Regiment Cote 34 Verdun 1916
"Life in the Trenches" - French 87th Regiment Cote 34 Verdun 1916
via WikiMedia Commons

This is an edited version of an article which was originally cross-posted at our fellow SBNation Blog, Bloody by Cageside Features Guest Columnist John S. Nash, on Nov, 12, 2012 [†]

Editor's Note: Oftentimes, the media blitzes readers on such days as Veterans Day with so much material, that something truly fascinating and informative, such as this long form historical piece, can get lost in the mix. We hope now that about a week has passed, you can find time on a lazy Saturday to enjoy these words and reflect upon the images they evoke.


"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)

Veterans Day 2012, marked 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 flamethrower, 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. Entire 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 upon poisonous gases - 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 whom were intent upon 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 were successful, prisoners would be taken; and if the raid were 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]


Transcription of above Newspaper Image:

Page 3, The War Illustrated, 17th August, 1918.

Headline: Raiders Prepare to Fare Forth on a Foray

Caption: Regimental sergeant-major handing out bombs and hand-grenades to a party of soldiers about to proceed on a daylight raid. Right: The men giving in their personal belongings, including their paybooks and identity disks, before starting. This is done in order that in the event of their being killed or captured no information may be conveyed to the enemy as to the regiments confronting him.

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, or 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; after which, the raiders could then safely sneak back to their own lines, shielded by their trailing prisoners, if necessary.

For such missions, they learned the best weapons were those which would not impede their movement, were quiet, and could also 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 ammonal 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.

"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 their rifle was not their best combat weapon in the trenches. Where it could 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 firearms of the trench fighters were the shotgun and revolver. However, use of these firearms was far less desirable than that of even more primitive weapons, since they would surely 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 mêlée weaponry, 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 mêlée combat.


"Not since the Middle Ages has knowledge of this method of fighting been as essential as it is today. 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, so that even hand-held weapons could prove to be 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 either. Many of their military strategists 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 Annapolis Military and Naval Academies. [EN8]

Nevertheless, 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 to the vast majority of soldiers who would actually be doing the fighting.

Eventually, all of the armies began to rectify this oversight. Although, the British were particularly slow to adapt to the realities of trench combat, having ignored early offers from "jiu-jitsuist and fencing masters" to instruct their foot soldiers in the proper use of bayonet and hand-to-hand combat. [EN9]

Soon, even they could not 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 does not know what to do." [EN10]

While at first, soldiers were being armed with more and more handheld 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 numbers 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.

[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 was 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 prior 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]

9-08d7085c1c_medium 17-bb3d30b9eb_medium

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

"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 a civilian, he had been among the first Americans to study jujutsu in Japan extensively, reportedly having even served as Inspector of Police at Nagasaki for 10 years before returning to 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 primarily for the fact that not only could it be used as a 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 the training, most American camps had instructors who 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 street-fighting. 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, and 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 of the three trainers, was 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. A film of their training methods still survives.

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". It was also 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 programs, the predecessors of our modern combatives.

The price for such knowledge would be great, and those whom paid it for us should never be forgotten.


"Stealth Patrol", by Otto Dix via


"In Flanders Field"

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.

by John McCrae


† -- This article by our Cageside Features Guest Columnist , has been 'crossposted' to today (Nov. 17, 2012). In addition to delving into wrestling's past for Cageside Seats, Mr. Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts at our fellow SBNation Blog:, where this article was also posted on Nov 12, 2012. Cageside Seats is proud to present the cross-posting of his entire archive of articles in this exclusive guest column for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently for new content.



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 - 30 May 1916

EN 5: Hand-to-Hand Fighting, by A. E. Marriott - 1918

EN 6: "Raiding Trenches Dangerous Sport", Associated Press: The News and Courier - 8 Jun 1916

EN 7: "Kaiser Order Jiu-Jitsu", New York Times - 13 Feb 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 - 11 Mar 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 - 4 Oct 1918

EN 14: "Canuck's Experts in Trench Raids", Quebec Telegraph - 23 Feb 1917

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

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

EN 17: Theodore Roosevelt's 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 & Edward F. Allen: The Century, (Vol 96) - May to Oct, 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


*** Special thanks to Thomas Nash for helping with research ***

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