Monday, March 2, 2009

First Bayonet Charge

Dur Écu had previously thought that history’s first bayonet charge was made by French troops in 1693, either at Marsaglia or Neerwinden. See, for example, his article on French line infantry of the Thirty Years’ War (which extends forward into the latter decades of the 17th c.), excerpted here:

The French were the first to experiment with the bayonet, the weapon that eventually rendered the pike redundant. According to Belhomme, the primitive plug bayonet was first employed in 1642 in the Army of Flanders. These bayonets were hafted weapons, about two-feet long. The blade was one-foot long and was fastened to a wooden haft, also one-foot long, which could be plugged into the muzzle of the musket. Puységur, a contemporary, described French soldiers using plug bayonets in 1647, and his description of the weapon is identical to Belhomme’s. But it is clear from these and other accounts that the plug bayonet was not employed to any great extent until the 1670s.

The early plug bayonet was employed defensively, but within a couple of decades the offensive possibilities of the weapon were recognized. The French infantry is generally considered to have made history’s first bayonet charge at Marsaglia (4 October 1693). Since some controversy attaches to this distinction, it may be best to cite authority. Broglie, citing Rousset, states:

Les charges, commandées par les officiers, l’epée à la main, et faites, d'apres l'ordre exprès du maréchal [Catinat], “au pas de course, la baionette au bout du fusil et sans tirer un coup,” furent remarquables et exécutees avec une vigueur qui décida du sort de la journée.

Another source accords the honor to the French Guards at Neerwinden (29 July 1693), just a few months earlier (Eugene François de St. Hilaire, Histoire d’Espagne).

Now recently, Dur Écu noticed a reference to a bayonet charge by French infantry at the Siege of Valenciennes in 1677 in an article by John A. Lynn, the dean of historians of the army of Louis XIV. In examining the source cited by Professor Lynn, a letter of French War Minister Louvois, it is clear that the French infantry on this occasion counterattacked cavalry in street fighting and drove them off with grenades and the plug bayonet. So, this episode may have been not only history’s first bayonet charge but also a remarkable example of the prowess of infantry armed with the new weapon against cavalry.

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