On one occasion, Sledge came across a dead Marine medical corpsman ‘his abdominal cavity laid bare … the glistening viscera bespecked with coral dust’. He likened the sight to the rabbits and squirrels he had shot as a boy. Later, he found a Japanese machine-gunner sitting behind his gun as though ready to fire it but ‘the crown of the gunner’s skull had been blasted off, probably by one of our automatic weapons’. One of Sledge’s fellow Marine’s casually tossed pieces of coral into the dead gunner’s open skull. In the winter of 1944, one of Burgett’s buddies was killed by a tiny piece of shrapnel ‘no larger than a BB [4.5mm]’ that had entered the right side of his head, just beneath the rim of his helmet, killing him instantly. Burgett also saw a US soldier nearly cut in half by German machine-gun fire. And a German soldier died as ‘bullets ripped into his skull and with them went the top of his head … gore, brain, and vapour steamed[ed] out in the cold air and spatter[ed] red in the snow’.
While we do not have similar first-hand accounts of medieval battles, there is plenty of forensic evidence to show that they were no less brutal than those of the modern era. Skeletons excavated from a mass grave in the village of Towton in Yorkshire dating from the battle fought there in 1461 show several sorts of injury inflicted by a variety of weapons. Perhaps most illustrative of medieval warfare are the injuries suffered by one particular individual. His first injury was almost certainly inflicted by a man on horseback; he suffered a massive horizontal sword cut across the back of the head which would have brought him down. This may not have killed him despite the brain trauma it would have caused. It sliced through the bone and caused fractures to radiate from the wound. He then received a second, relatively superficial, sword cut as the swordsman turned his victim over from face down to deliver a deep diagonal strike across the face, bisecting it and causing massive trauma. That one killed him. And in all likelihood, that blow was delivered by a man on foot.
The twenty-seven individuals in the grave between them suffered 113 head wounds. Many of these were puncture wounds delivered by the spike on a poleaxe (or similar weapon) or the beak of a war hammer. Examination of skeletons from another mass grave, this time from the Battle of Wisby in Sweden, fought a hundred years before Towton, show crush injuries to limbs caused by blade strikes on men protected by mail armour (popularly but incorrectly called chain-mail). While some of the injuries suffered by the dead at Towton and at Wisby would have been inflicted on foot soldiers by horsemen, many were inflicted in face-to-face combat on foot.
Illustrations from fencing manuals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries show rapier thrusts through the head and neck. It was not uncommon for the fencing masters or their assistants to lose an eye when teaching and practicing the art of foyning. The protective fencer’s mask did not come into use until the mid-eighteenth century and was not widely used until much later. Fencing was often taught with real weapons with little concession to safety. Sometimes, rebated sharps (that is to say, the blade had no cutting edge and its point was turned over into a small flattened button) were used but these were only marginally less dangerous than the real thing.
The head and neck were always prime targets. The skull of a 3,000-year-old skeleton discovered in China had a piece of a bronze weapon still embedded in it. The weapon indented the bone and penetrated it. This was in a part of the skull where the gap between bone and brain was great enough for the individual to have avoided significant brain injury. The weapon was probably a so-called dagger-axe (sometimes referred to as a halberd). Like the skeleton from Towton, this man had suffered other wounds from other bronze weapons, including injuries to his arms. The humerus had been damaged by a cutting weapon and, from its location, the weapon that inflicted it probably severed the brachial artery. Having been brought down by the strike to the head, severing brachial artery was the fatal blow. Blood loss would have led to unconsciousness in 14 seconds and death in 90 seconds. The brachial artery is only about 13 mm below the skin and, thus, not hard to find with a slashing blow of a sword or knife.
The radial artery in the lower arm is only 6 mm below the skin but narrower than the brachial artery. When the radial is severed, unconsciousness occurs in 30 seconds and death in 2 minutes. A quicker way to kill someone is to cut the subclavian artery, located behind the collar bone. Death occurs in 12 seconds but it is a difficult artery to hit because it is 63 mm below the skin. Once severed, the fate of the victim is sealed as there is no way to stem the flow of blood. The fastest way to kill someone with a blade is to stab him in the heart. Death occurs in 3 seconds. However, the heart is protected by the ribs while a thrust from behind may strike the shoulder blade if the blow is too high. The heart is difficult to hit. Stabs to the chest may well sever ribs while organs remain unharmed. The tip of the knife or sword can break if it hits a rib. For this reason, the old fencing masters did not advocate thrusts to the chest.
Thrusts to the stomach are often fatal, depending on their depth. The body is usually protected by clothing, equipment and armour so getting a thrust home may be difficult, although a thrusting weapon is surprisingly easy to push through the human body. The psychological impact of being stabbed in the stomach is huge, rendering the victim easier to finish off. In the Second World War, British Commandos were taught that even a minor stomach wound had considerable effect. This contrasts with what Peter Drake claimed in his 1755 memoir, Amiable Renegade. He fought a duel with ‘one Farrell, who was a particular friend and acquaintance of mine, a sergeant in Brigadier Newton’s regiment’. Drake had no desire to inflict serious harm on him so in his own defence ‘gave him a slight wound in the belly, and brought him home to his wife’.
W E Fairbairn, a former Shanghai policeman, co-designer of the British Commando dagger of the Second World War and instructor in unarmed and knife combat, stated that an arterial wound inflicted by a sharp blade was more dangerous than an injury inflicted by a jagged fragment from a bomb or a shell. This was
Medieval weapons were designed to bring a man down so that he could be dispatched with a thrust or a blow for which purpose specific weapons or parts of weapons were designed. Defeated Roman gladiators were often killed with a blow to the head. Gladiator skeletons unearthed in Turkey show similar sorts of penetration wounds in the skulls as the skeletons found at Towton. Such wounds had been from a coup de grâce.
Some wounds in the gladiator skulls had healed, indicating that not all such injuries were fatal. The healed injuries were probably caused in training rather than in combat in the arena, although it is possible that some of the injuries had occurred in battle before the individual concerned became a gladiator. None of the healed cranial injuries had penetrated the brain. Some had been caused by blunt force trauma due to repeated blows just above the eyes. Considering that gladiators wore helmets, the blows must have landed on their helmets rather than on their unprotected heads. At least one of the puncture wounds had been inflicted by a gladius, the Roman sword, but had not been deep enough to kill. Others were from a trident. Some of the puncture wounds, caused by sword and javelin thrusts, were clearly fatal, however. Several of the blunt force injuries were also death blows. The flaked edges of some of the trident injuries show that the points were barbed; flaking was caused when the barbed point was withdrawn from the punctured cranium.
First-hand accounts of sword fights, especially those in which the narrator kills his opponent are quite rare. Peter Drake described such an encounter in Amiable Renegade. In 1707, what started as a duel which seemingly concluded amicably without injury to either party, ended a short while later with the death of Drake’s challenger after he suddenly turned murderously upon Drake as they walked down the street. Drake, the better swordsman, ran ‘him through his body’ with his sword. The man may not have died immediately but probably bled to death within a few minutes. Two years earlier, Drake had participated in a fourteen-man duel (more like than an organised fight). Three men were killed – indeed, one of the fighting pairs ran each other through and killed each other – and several others were wounded before it ended.
Drake fought as a cavalry soldier in several battles in the War of the Spanish Succession. At Malplaquet, Drake was wounded several times and lost a lot of blood. Then, he was shot in the shoulder with a pistol as he tried to surrender to an enemy officer in command of a cavalry squadron. Pistols of that time were smooth-bored and had neither accuracy nor range. To be sure of hitting the target, the customary way for a cavalry trooper to shoot his enemy was to place the muzzle on the body of the intended target before firing. This is what happened to Drake. However, he was wily and conscious of the dangers of surrendering. Armed with a carbine and a sword, he had held these out, one in each hand, so as to indicate his willingness to surrender, griping the horse reins in his teeth. In this way, he ensured he did not disarm himself.
As the officer fired, Drake discharged his carbine (he had the foresight to leave it loaded). Drake ‘shot the upper part of his head [the German officer’s], and he tumbled forward: I saw his brains come down’. Drake was rather more fortunate as the pistol ball only ‘tore the flesh a little’ but the flash from the pistol and the burning tow wadding (wadding went between powder and ball) set his waistcoat and shirt alight. The front rank of the enemy squadron also fired at him. His cuirass (a pistol-proof breastplate commonly worn by cavalry regiments of the time) was hit eleven times but was not penetrated, while another two balls went through his coat skirts. Drake escaped with his life and galloped away to surrender to someone else. By now his numerous wounds were causing him difficulties and he could no longer raise his arms. He had been wounded seven times, including the shot in the calf from earlier in the day which now prevented him from standing. His horse had also been shot, hit in the spine through the saddle, and it died the following morning.
Drake was fortunate in having his wounds attended to by one of the surgeons to the Old Pretender (the would-be James III). However, Drake’s blood had caked his body and, when trying to remove Drake’s clothes, his surgeon
Not all bullet strikes resulted in serious injury. During one engagement, Drake was hit in the small of the back by a musket ball which penetrated his clothing and gave him ‘a terrible slap’ on his backbone. It did not break the skin, though. The next day, he had a swelling the ‘biggness of an egg’ but was otherwise untroubled.
Combat during the War of the Spanish Succession was a bloody business. Donald McBane, a forty-year-old Scots contemporary of Drake, fought in several of the major battles and sieges of the war and engaged in many more duels and organised fights than Drake off the battlefield. He was wounded twenty-seven times. At Blenheim (1704), he was so badly injured, he was left for dead. Indeed, he nearly died of cold when scavengers stole his clothes as he lay among the dead and the moribund. McBane was a tough individual. Lying on the battlefield, he was overcome with thirst, so he drank blood from the dead men around him although the more he drank ‘the worse I was’. Fortunately for McBane, he was discovered the next day, given an emetic to make him vomit the blood and, with the aid of a surgeon, whom he paid out of his own pocket, he survived. After some weeks, he had recovered well enough to get about on crutches. McBane was put in a hospital set up to deal with the wounded from Blenheim. It held 4,000 casualties, many of whom were not as lucky as him.
Drake and McBane were men like Pollard and Jünger (see part 1). Drake lived well into his eighties, while McBane died when was only about sixty-six in around 1730. Jünger lived to be 102. Pollard died in December 1960 aged sixty-seven.