The trench warfare that took place during the Great War was some of the most chaotic and barbaric combat to occur in the modern era. While the First World War is often noted as the war that brought the technological art of killing to its zenith, it was very often the hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, settled with primitive weapons, that decided who lived and who died. The list of technological weapons advancements achieved during World War One is almost myriad. The machine gun allowed hundreds to be killed, maimed and wounded in mere seconds. This single advancement in weaponry certainly caused more casualties during the war than any other weapon and forever changed the face of modern warfare; ending forever the massed frontal assault as a primary combat tactic. Other weapons like the tank and armored cars were developed in direct response to the effectiveness of the machine gun. Still more modern weapons like the airplane and poisonous gas also made their power felt on the battlefield, again changing combat tactics forever. Massive artillery pieces, firing huge, high-explosive shells were developed in an attempt to destroy the trench systems that developed along the Western Front, which only resulted in the trenches becoming more complex, more heavily reinforced and the bunkers being dug that much deeper and built with that much reinforcement.
With this stalemate of forces, new tactics were developed. Among those was the trench raid. The trench raid was typically conducted by a small band of men, under the cover of darkness. This allowed them to cross No Man’s Land, the desolation between the parallel lines of trenches, with some level of impunity, as the machine gunners could not see them. Once across the field of desolation, the group would explore enemy defenses. Sometimes they would simply perform reconnaissance, looking for (or even creating) gaps in barbed wire in preparation of a coming assault against the line, or looking for machine gun emplacements. Sometimes the raiding parties entered the enemy trenches. This could again be for reconnaissance, but also for the purposes of capturing a prisoner to integrate or simply to wreak momentary havoc; causing the defenders to lose precious sleep and having great physiological and demoralizing effect. During these raids, silence was imperative, so firearms were not a practical weapon. The up close and personal nature of the action necessarily required the most primitive of weapons, bare hands, bayonets, knives and clubs. For the defenders, in the dark and not sure where a fired bullet would strike (as likely friend as foe), these same weapons became the weapons of choice.
The trench club took numerous forms during the First World War, evolving as the war progressed. Initially, handy pieces of stout wood, such as the haft of an English entrenching tool, or a simple shovel or pick itself, made an ersatz weapon. However, these were soon “improved” in the field. Clubs were both “factory made” and “field made”, and often the factory-made club was further modified in the field. The typical club, regardless of country of origin, typically ranged in size from slightly over 12” in length, to just shy of 3’ in length; with most falling in the 16” to 20” range. The body of the club was usually of hardwood, turned round and tapered so the head was larger than the grip area. Grooves or other grip enhancements were standard, as was some sort of hole in the grip for attachment of a thong or lanyard. The piece of wood might be “enhanced” with some sort of metal end or reinforcement to prevent the head from breaking when it was used. Additionally, anti-personnel projections might be added, from items as simple as hobnails or horseshoe nails, to specifically manufactured spiked and weighted attachments. The ends were sometimes weighted as well to increase their terminal effectiveness. Sometimes this took the form of simple iron or lead rings or inserts, and sometimes it involved more creative additions like the bodies of grenades or other ordnance. Over time, certain styles evolved. The British club tended to be a turned wood weapon, shaped very much like a small baseball bat or the classic London Bobby’s truncheon. The simple, often mass-produced, wood clubs were often modified in the field to taste of the individual user. The Royal Engineers also produced special trench clubs with lead ring reinforcements that usually incorporated some sort of metal studs at the head as well. German clubs tended to be produced by pioneer and engineer battalions as well, with some units literally setting up ersatz factories in the field. These clubs often followed the basic British form of a bat shaped club with projections and additions at the top. The Germans also produced metal clubs with thin steel shafts with a weighted head. The most infamous and barbaric of the WWI trench clubs were certainly those produced by the Austrians, which primarily saw use along the Austrian – Italian lines in the Alps. These clubs tend to bring to mind medieval peasant armies brandishing maces and morning stars. The Austrian clubs often included long iron spikes that protruded from the head, whose appearance was so wicked that the Italians launched a very effective propaganda campaign against the Austrians using images of Austrian clubs captured in various campaigns, with captions indicating the clubs were intended to kill Italian soldiers who had been rendered defenseless during gas attacks. While the use of trench clubs appears to be universal throughout the war by all sides, the Italians claim to have never used these weapons that they considered to be so barbaric.
Offered here is a wonderful example of an Austrian First World War Trench Club. The Austrians took trench club manufacture to a high art during the war. The club appears to have started life as a “factory made” truncheon, which was then modified in the field to be a more effective weapon. The weapon uses the bat shape that was popularized by the British, a turned piece of wood in that classic shape. To this turned wood shaft a piece of cast iron pipe has been added for extra weight and to reinforce the end. The head is further enhanced with twenty projecting spikes that are either thick pieces of wire or modified nails with the heads cut off. The spikes are arranged in eight off-set rows, alternating between two and three spikes per rod. The spikes are roughly ¾” long and .16” in diameter. The club measures 21 7/8” in overall length, which is just a hair longer than most British or German examples but is not uncommon for Austrian clubs. The iron head is 4 ¾” in length and is slightly more than 1.5” in diameter. The shaft tapers to a comfortable, double concave grip that is 1.34” at the central swell and is 1.12” in diameter at the top of the grip and 1.07” at the bottom of the grip. A 1.36” diameter, 1 ¼” long section above the grip helps to keep the hand from sliding up the shaft when the club is swung, and an elongated mushroom shaped pommel cap that is 1.85” in length is present at the base of the grip. Six grooves are cut into the grip as well to improve the grip. The club has the expected lanyard hole in the grip, about ¼” in diameter and roughly centered in the section just above the grip, about 6 ¼” from the pommel cap. The club is slightly heavier than your average trench club, coming in about 1 pound 10 ounces. This is much lighter than some of the more massive Austrian clubs (often weighing 3 to 4 pounds or more), but a couple of ounces heavier than most British or German clubs that usually weigh between 1 pound and 1 ½ pounds.
The club shows good age and distress and may well be an early battlefield pick up or barn find. The wood retains little of its original finish, with some present only at the most protected areas that abut some of the thicker parts of the club. The wood also has a very dry and somewhat weathered appearance, again suggesting a battlefield found piece that spent a long time siting in a barn. The wood shows numerous dings and mars, and some lightly scattered tight surface grain cracks. There is also a small hole, about ¼” deep and .18” diameter, roughly 1” below the pipe head. None of this in any way detracts from the appearance or displayability of the club, nor does it impact its solid and still quite usable condition. The iron head is heavily oxidized with a thick, reddish brown patina and some light surface rust. There is the expected discoloration to the wood where the iron has oxidized and darkened the wood. As with all the trench clubs that I have been offering of late, this club is 100% complete, correct and original in every way.
Overall this is a really attractive, very impressive example of a World War One Austrian Trench Club. This particular club is from the collection of noted trench club researcher, collector and author David Machnicki, author of At Arm’s Length – Trench Clubs and Knives Volumes I & II. This club is pictured and described on page 8 of Volume II. Real First World War trench clubs do not appear on the market very often, although well-crafted fakes do from time to time, particularly of this pattern. For any collector of Great War small arms, the Trench Club is one of the most intriguing weapons for that conflict, a throwback to man’s primeval urge to fight for survival using the most basic of weapons, in a war that featured the most advanced technology of the time.
Provenance: ex-David Machnicki collection.