Carter Rila's

Carter's Cutlery Commentaries

March 2006


9. The 1917/1918 Trench Knives


Misconception: The M-1917 Trench Knives have the pyramidal knuckles and the M-1918 Trench Knives have the saw teeth guard.

To begin according to the official history America's Munitions the purpose of the triangular blade of the Model 1917 was to easily penetrate layers of cloth and leather accoutrements in order to make the blade stroke most effective. This knife was slightly changed as regards handle and given a different guard to protect the man's knuckles and was known as Model 1918.

Application of functional analysis to the design will point out the absurdity of this premise. Only when using the ice pick or point down grip would this be relevant and only when attacking from the rear, in the latter case a downward blow would be absorbed by either the pack or deflected by the shoulder blades, thus rendering the victim a painful but far from fatal blow. Attacking a man wearing a pack from the rear is ludicrous. An upward or fencing blow to the front would not need the penetrating feature. The knife cannot be used for a slashing stroke directed to the neck or arm as it will simply leave a shallow scratch. And the blade is useless for any other purpose that a field knife may serve.

Second, the scabbard is a poorly thought out design, based no doubt on the leather and metal scabbard of the British pattern 14 bayonet (US M-1917). The leather is subject to quick rotting in the trenches. I have observed many used scabbards on which the tip has fallen away or is held by a shred. The scabbard though appearing to be bi-directional is actually one-way being made only for the left side for a right-hand draw.

When the M-1910 haversack is worn the M-1905 Bayonet worn in the M-1910 Scabbard is carried ready to hand on the left side of the haversack sticking up behind the left shoulder. However, trench raiders usually did not go forward wearing the haversack and thus had to carry the bayonet on the left hip. Even allowing for the wearing of the bayonet on the rearmost set of eyelets under the fifth pocket in the belt, which for most men was over the buttock and was not likely this leaves only three other positions for the knife scabbard; under the front pocket, the second pocket, or the third pocket, as it cannot be attached under the fourth pocket for the eyelets can accommodate only one half of a double hook attachment.

It is obvious the menace to America's manhood posed by carrying the scabbard hooked under the first pocket. The menace is almost as great under the second but certainly the thigh will be mightily irritated. In any position both the bayonet and the trench knife hilts are levered outward by the pressure of a pocket full of cartridges. And finally the sawtooth design hilt, besides being unnecessarily cruel for a blow to the chops, certainly resulted in a lot of unneeded gore.

This did not appear to be a consideration for its replacement, the Mark I hilt based on brass knuckles, is equally messy. The 1917 guard design is just as much a menace to its bearer as to its assailee. Those damn teeth are sharp! Thus to decide that the toothed design succeeded the pyramidal design flies in the face of common sense.

Both hilt designs rub on and irritate the inner arm when striding along. The error in the identification of the M1917 and M1918 Trench Knives comes from the transposition of the captions on Figures 107 and 108 in Petersonís American Knives. The M1917 with its saw teeth is shown in Crowell opposite page 228. Howard Cole fudged the whole issue by captioning his pages M1917/18 trench knives, a wholly specious labeling.

Benedict Crowell goes on to describe the June 1918 tests made by the A.E.F.

Therefore the trench knife known as Mark I was developed partially by the American Expeditionary Forces and partially by the Engineering Division of Ordnance. This knife was entirely different from the model 1917, having a flat blade, metal scabbard, and a cast-bronze handle. It was a combination of all the good points of all the knives used by the foreign armies.

The scabbard for the Mark I solved the placement problem for it is a two-way design and is made so that the two opposed hooks are spaced to properly engage the upper and lower eyelets of the rifle cartridge belts and is thus worn between two pockets on the inside of the belt. The hilt still interferes with the arm but almost the whole length of the knife scabbard is behind the belt's width. It still might injure the soft parts of the abdomen in a fall but it can not reach the genitals when worn over the hip.

The blade design of the Mark I, is a direct copy of the standard French trench knife blade and the French scabbards for the overseas-made (the Aulion) knives are indistinguishable from those made for the French knives. Certainly the Mark I design originated with the A.E.F. The considered opinion of myself and Harold Peterson, was that few, if any of the L.F.& C. made Mark I knives saw service in the Great War. Large quantities were issued early in WW II and were carried as late as 1945. A few were modified to fit M8 scabbards by grinding flat the guard.

I will close with this thought. The most-disliked and least-useful items are those most likely to have been preserved for they were soon surplused. Consider the fate of the millions of the M-3 knives made. They were used, they were brought home, and tucked away and are still treasured today by their bearers. The M3 blade design proved so good that it is still in use today.

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Copyright 2006 Carter Rila