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October 7, 2009

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» The History Boys and the Bayonet

Investigating the Butcher Blade

<image class="left" title="Bayonet found in Abercynon" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/10/7/smallbayonet_copy_1.jpg" height="900" alt="Photo of Bayonet" width="150">

Imagine the scene: students moving into a shared house in Abercynon.

A van full of furniture, an empty house awaiting the house-warming party.

After much puffing and panting we get the furniture in and get ready to dash for the pub (Ian’s forgotten the milk and coffee, so the pub is the only answer).

Peter hands me a rusty piece of metal. “It’ll look good on wall above the fireplace“, he says.

When I get home I am amazed to find the object is a military bayonet.

Although I'm not an expert restorer I begin to clean off the rust and paint (someone had been using what later turned out to be a significant historical artefact to stir paint) to find a series of numbers and symbols etched into the blade and hilt.

The symbol was of a crown surmounted by an arc in which was written the word Wilhelm. Also clearly embossed on edge of the hilt was the letter P with the number 15.

The thing that stood out about this 18 inch Bayonet was the serrated or sawback edge to the weapon. Our research revealed that the symbol of the crown surmounted by the arched word Wilhelm represented Kaiser Wilhelm II. The number 15 related to its year of issue, 1915, and the letter P to Prussia, where a German Pioneer Regiment was raised. That in itself was worth recording.

But the most striking issue was the sawback edge on the blade of bayonet which extended approx 12-14 inches along what would normally be described as the blunt edge of the bayonet. Continued research established that it was in fact a “German Sawback Butcher Blade”. British and allied media spun great political propaganda from these weapons. They gave readers details of injuries allegedly inflicted with this weapon as proof of the levels of atrocity commited by the 'Bestial Hun'. There were unconfirmed reports of German prisoners who were caught in possession of this fearsome-looking weapon being summarily executed. |ndeed the great anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front includes a scene where two German soldiers discuss the risk of being executed on the spot by 'British Tommies' if caught in possession of the dreaded sawback blade.

Our research shows that the sawback blade was issued to only 6% of German troops and indeed, the sawback serration was intended to be used by pioneer corps NCOs for cutting fence poles and barbed wire etc. But such was the power of propaganda that German Command recalled all sawback bayonets and had their edges ground down in 1916. This helped us narrow down the date the blade was captured. Clearly it must have been captured before 1916 when these blades were recalled, but after 1915 when it was made.

Hopefully further research will help us establish in which battle or skirmish this bayonet was actually taken and identify its rightful owners. The bayonet itself has been verified by the National Army Museum as an authentic ‘sawback butcher blade’ used in the bloodiest of conflicts.

As good history boys, we started our research by contacting the leader of foundation history, Dr Andy Croll, who proved to be a mine of valuable information. He put us in contact with Dr Fiona Reid, Glamorgan History Division's expert on Word War One. She has since lent the ‘sawback butcher blade’ to a secondary school as a teaching aid.

For us, most importantly, as history students, it shows that history is all around us and historic puzzles appear in some of the most unlikely situations. Stay tuned to the History boys for sequels. You can find us on the facebook group site of Glamorgan University's History Society.

Gary Brady

February 6, 2009

History Division News
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» News from the classroom ... What was the Black Death?

History Foundation Module: What was the Black Death

St Roch with marks of the plague

What was the Black Death? The answer – as every schoolchild knows – is simple: the Black Death was the bubonic plague (or Yersinia Pestis to give it its scientific name). It’s a belief not confined to school children. Lots of websites – and lots of serious history books – confidently tell us that the disease which spread through Europe in the late 1340s and early 1350s was none other than Y. Pestis. How could it be anything else? The painful buboes – or gavoccioli (swellings in the groin and neck) – that were mentioned so frequently by observers in the mid-fourteenth century are surely some of the strongest indicators we have that bubonic plague was responsible for the worst catastrophe in human history.

However, students on Andy Croll’s foundation history module, ‘The Black Death: A Medieval Disaster’, have been looking afresh at some of the primary evidence from the mid-fourteenth century as well as considering some of the latest research by scientists and historians of medicine. Whilst many chroniclers mentioned buboes and painful swellings, we’ve seen how many didn’t. Likewise, we’ve seen how the Black Death spread far more quickly than Y. Pestis spread in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how top scientists from Oxford failed to find DNA evidence of Yersinia in the teeth and bones of Black Death victims exhumed from five mass graves. The death rate of the fourteenth-century disease was also much higher than the modern form of bubonic plague.

So, just what was the Black Death? Experts put forward a number of possibilities ranging from anthrax through to haemorrhagic plague. It could be that the Black Death was an earlier, more deadly, form of bubonic plague that has since mutated. Or it could be that whatever was responsible for millions of deaths in the medieval period has itself died out. Whatever the answer, it’s clear that we have to read our primary sources with much more care than was hitherto the case. One gavocciolo does not make a bubonic plague epidemic.

October 20, 2008

History Division News
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» News from the classroom ... Into the Victorian slum: in search of the real-life Fagin

Students taking Andy Croll’s History foundation module ‘Crime, Vice and Lowlife in the 19th century’ have spent the last two weeks thinking about the so-called ‘criminal’ classes. Many Victorians were convinced that the slums and rookeries of their great cities and towns were inhabited by a class of ne’er-do-wells who lived on the proceeds of crime and vice. One of the most notorious of these ‘little hells’ was the ‘China’ district of the South Wales iron town of Merthyr Tydfil. The inhabitants of China were supposed to have their own Emperor and Empress who headed-up an organised criminal network comprised of ‘rodnies’ (juvenile thieves), pimps, bullies and ‘nymphs of the pave’ (prostitutes). Marxist historians and writers of popular history were often happy to accept contemporary reports of an underclass of Robin Hood figures who lived outside the norms of bourgeois society. But recently scholars have cast doubt on the reliability of sources that were invariably penned by middle-class observers (like Henry Mayhew). Were the slums really populated by real-life Fagins, sharpers, mudlarks, magsmen and till-friskers or are such figures the products of the fevered imagination of waves of bourgeous social explorers who, too often, confused crushing poverty with immorality and viciousness? Can we, as historians, ever know?

Want to know more about the Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation Programme? Click here