Vintage Saturday: Mission Critical Equipment

Gerätewagen No. 9081 des Pion. Läpple 12.
Ja, even zee anchor is essential equipment! (photo from Drake Goodman)

A German WWI pioneer displays (rather sarcastically) the gear he has to carry – complete with wagon, ladder, 2-man saw, naval anchor, axe, sledgehammer, and pipe (click to see the full size version). The more things change, the more they stay the same…


  1. So much for the concept of mobile warfare. And he could have lessened his load considerably by ditching that huge calabash pipe :).

    Jokes aside, the front-line operational experiences on the Western Front probably ended up dictating that a lot of that equipment was basically essential to the Pioneers’ work at the time. Talk about “feature creep”.

  2. The ladder was mainly for trench raiding. Not just for climbing down into the trench, either. You could throw it across a barbed-wire entanglement to make a “bridge”, across a communications trench for the same purpose, or use it to scale the side of a machine-gun bunker to drop a “surprise package” in through an air vent or stovepipe; say, a Stielhandgranate.



  3. Looks like a frame saw and an auger are in the wagon as well along with a roll of string–maybe for a chalk line. The long thing sticking out the back of the wagon looks like a “millwright bar” for prying heavy objects. Is that an oar under his arm?

    The saw looked familiar, there is a company selling a surplus Swiss model that is not the same, but close. Scroll down to bottom of page: Two man cross cut saws are still used today, I’ve got three in my work shop right now. Properly sharpened and adjusted they do quick work, otherwise they are misery. Smoke jumpers still use them in some cases as they are easier to jump with than chain saws. The US cross cut designs (perforated Lance, etc.) work a lot better than the German patterns, but the US designs require a special tool to set the height of the rakers versus the cutting teeth. The US vs European development of saws was probably due to the immense forests of very large trees that were cut in the 1800’s in the US, while cutting down vast forests of several-hundred year old trees was not a pressing issue in Europe.

    That is quite a pipe he is smoking, have a hard time imagining it staying in one piece throughout the conflict.

    • Yes, the oar would have been used on work boats supporting pontoon bridge laying efforts, or on the pontoon sections themselves to pole and push them into place in shallow water, which would explain the exceptional length of the shaft.

  4. @ Earl Liew :

    I have to qualify the “exceptional length” of the oar shaft. For the purposes of the Pioneers and other land forces, that oar is a long one. By old-time naval life boat and jolly boat standards, it would not have been considered very long at all.

  5. Maybe folks he is merely a normal, tired, exhausted soldier demonstrating that which GI’s have always done when they thought they could get away with it; and that is the absurdity of what is expected of them,and to their determent, demanded of them by those that are not sharing “the load.”. My youngest son; a Platoon Sgt, said to me once “Dad the only thing not on my M4 is an MP3 player!” And when checking photos from every war you will notice that, YOUNG soldiers quite often carry enormous amounts of “Things” just because they can, and old soldiers only carry those things they know they will need. The infantry soldier of WW I carried 28 lbs of equipment as a combat pack with a horse show roll attached. Today the average soldier carries 58 lbs without a rucksack. I personally love the pipe!

    • WW2 German vet that served on the Eastern Front and was 6’7″ with muscular build told big being that size in a war is a bad deal. He said he was expected(ordered) to carry 3 times a normal load.

      Plus anytime there was heavy lifting to do he was the 1st one picked for doing it. That included being the one who had find the 1st truck that would crank start in the winter of 1941 and 1942.

      Mike was strong and as a cross cutcut saw is in the picture I’ll mention this. His father had moved here and raised bees and captured wild hives. I watched him once cutting with a crosscut on a large maple tree to get the wild honeybees out.

      First Mike wore out my father and then my uncle. Then the 3rd guy stepped up who wasn’t an ethnic German and Mike wasn’t going to let him out any German. Mike started cutting at double time and wore out the guy very fast. Then with normal eastern German directness told the guy how weak he was.

    • But…that pipe plus “ammunition” ( tobacco ) and “primers” ( matches ) probably accounted for at least 20 out of the 28 pounds :D!

      Just kidding, of course :)! Actually, you have a very good point there about the infantryman’s basic load or, should I say, burden. I can honestly sympathize with your son’s comment about his M4 having everything except the MP3 player ( and the proverbial kitchen sink to boot ). I take it that he feels the same way you and I ( and many readers on FW ) feel — that many, though not all, of the add-ons may be of marginal advantage at best and of questionable utility at worst relative to the added burden they place upon the end user.

      As with any piece of equipment or accessory, one has to very carefully evaluate that item’s true worth when balanced against it’s advantages or disadvantages in the context of proposed usage. There are many scenarios where “less is more”, and where “more” can be too much of a good thing ( counter-balanced by the fact that there are probably an equal number of scenarios where one might need many of the accessories mentioned to maintain an edge over the opposition ).

      At the end of the day, I dearly hope that your son, and all your children, will be kept safe from harm no matter what happens, and wherever they might be. It is the least that one generation can pass on to the next.

      • Once again Earl .. Well said! As Eric told his mother when she ask “why you and your dad love being soldiers” his said ‘Mom this is what we do!” There will always be those like Erick that will feel the need to go in harms way Earl.

        I have often marveled at what is available to the infantry soldier of today. The reality as I see it Earl, is soldiers of the past “made do” with what they had; because that was all there was to be had. Not because it was best.. but because that was all there was. We are trying our best to make things easier, better … example: making training less dangerous … combat is dangerous and if a man is mistakenly thinking it isn’t or led to believe it isn’t, then when it comes upon him; it comes as a shock that many have not been able to cope with. Most societies of today, I don’t believe, could survive if “that all there is” were to come upon us.
        There is an old SF saying … When it get’s tough .. the tough get going. I do not believe we have that many tough people anymore.

  6. What does “pioneer” mean in this context? This man is part of some kind of military engineering unit? Or part of a shock force of some kind?

    (My web searching only brings up people settling and resettling land…)

    • Try military pioneer. A pioneer (in military context) is a soldier who performs some engineering and construction tasks, such as building fortifications, roads, and bridges. Generally, pioneers are light engineering support within an infantry battalion unlike pure combat engineer units, who have greater resources and more specialized skills.

      Anyways, laugh all you want at this guy, but I’d hate to get in the way of the ax or the sledgehammer, especially if I raided his trench! Doesn’t he have a sharpened shovel as well? Shovels killed more guys in the trenches than bayonets ever did… or so I heard. If a German Pioneer ran into a French Sappeur in the dead of night in No Man’s Land, would the two attack each other with axes?

    • WWI and earlier German pioneers were mainly construction units, typically not expected to join the actual fighting (too valuable). At the end of WWI, with the Stosstrupp concept (infiltrating enemy fortifications in small groups instead of mass attacks) the specialized Sturmpioneer became popular, closer to US Combat Engineers. By WWII most pioneers were of the attack type, and special work battalions under Organization Todd did most of the fortification work.

  7. Yeaah, that was the kind of service I was with during my compulsory service. Jacks of all trades – build pontoon bridges, improvised wood or steel road constructions, laying mine fields, demining and destruction work. Just for training purposes, luckily. I believe in English proper terminology (in Canada) they call it ‘land engineers”. Sounds fancy.

  8. @ Keith & Andrew Chern :

    Good point about the sharpened shovel. Erich Maria Remarque himself makes references in “All Quiet On The Western Front” to the sharpened shovel as being the preferred and highly-effective close-quarters weapon of choice in the trenches when hand-to-hand combat was expected.

    I have noticed that there has been a revival of sorts in recent years of the sharpened shovel not only as a utilitarian tool but also as a weapon, eg., many types of compact folding pack shovels now have a sharpened cutting edge not only for cutting through roots and other tough obstacles but also for inflicting severe injuries upon an enemy.

    • I think it’s in a Swiss military manual from the 1950’s about using them as a weapon of choice. I do know from my own personal experience that they are an effective weapon.

        • There’s a bit in Bernard Cornwell’s “Sharpe’s Company” (which like all of the Sharpe novels is quite well researched, and aside from the fictional adventures of Sharpe and Harper sticks pretty close to the historic facts) where the besieged French troops in the fortress of Badajoz (Spain) attack the encroaching English siege lines. Taking advantage of a hard rain, the French made a bayonet charge and discovered that a nice sharp shovel in the hands of an English sapper is a better weapon than a musket with a bayonet.

          Incidentally, I worked as a plumber for some years which is an occupation that involves a lot of digging. I broke quite a few stamped steel shovels with fiberglass or cheap-wood handles, which my boss thought was normal. Did a little research (remembered an outstanding essay on digging tools in “Last Whole Earth Catalog, of all things, and found a copy) and discovered that if you look hard and pay about 3 or 4 times as much you can still buy forged-head shovels and spades with hickory handles. Completely unbreakable (I used one for three years, pretty much on a daily basis in Houston heavy-soil yards) and the heads will take an edge that would please an ax. Just in case there are any tool nuts around.

          • Good observations, Jim — thanks! I’ve done my fair share of heavy construction, both underwater ( as a surface-supplied industrial-commercial hard-hat diver ) and for land-based industrial construction ) and I couldn’t agree more. BTW, another first-rate material for really tough shovel and axe handles is ash wood, but those are much harder to come by than hickory. The best small-boat oars are typically made of carved ash wood, too.

  9. Cold Steel sells a “tactical” shovel, believe it or not. Modeled after a Russian design. Might be good as a “snow shovel” in an area that doesn’t allow civilians to go armed.

    There are a couple of American (and European) tool companies that still make top notch quality tools. Council Tools makes axes and shovels that are forged out of top quality steel and have ash or hickory handles. Ben Meadows is a forestry supplier that carries their tools. The Harry Epstein company in Kansas City (do a web search) carries axes from Council Tools (and from a Swedish company). Think of them as someone still making forged, machined, blued, and hand fitted guns in the age of stampings and polymers, or (for Chinese imports) the age of Liberator Pistols.

    Regarding cross cut saws wearing people out, they sure will if they are not of the right design or if they are not sharpened properly. The American design uses several teeth that are set to alternate sides that slice thorough the cross-grain on either side of the kerf then a raker tip that is sharpened and set forward at just the right height comes along and scoops out the wood to the depth the cutting teeth sliced. The slice (not dust) then goes into a gullet in the blade until the blade exits. The saws are designed to cut on the push and on the pull stroke, and one person can use a two-man saw if need be. The result is that hot shavings of wood that look sort of like worms or noodles shoot out of the wood. If a cross cut saw is making saw dust it is misery. If it shoots out lengths of wood it is just work. The better saws are also taper ground so the back of the saw is thinner than the teeth portion, which reduces binding. The US Forrest service has a downloadable book on how to sharpen them, and the proper jigs to sharpen them can be found on ebay for not much money if anyone is interested in such things. Even the new saws out of Germany don’t use rakers, at least none I’ve seen. In the US the massive trees cut down required the (in late 1800’s) advanced designs, and for cutting down ancient redwoods two saws would be brazed together. That did not just take hardy lumberjacks but very highly skilled sawyers who kept the saws sharpened and adjusted properly. There were designs and settings for soft vs hard woods, etc. The saws that are used in the TV lumber jack competitions are specialized gizmos that no one in the field uses–sort of like IPSC “race guns”.

    Weapons are specialized tools, and the development of weapons parallels the development of tools in many ways, especially when it comes to what was going on in one country versus another.

    • Interesting you should mention Ben Meadows. I’ve used a lot of the products in their catalogue over the years for different applications.

    • I just searched Ben Meadows and Council tools. Lots of neat stuff but I didn’t see any straightforward digging tools. (That firefighting “combination tool” – basically, a long-handled E-tool – is pretty neat, though!) My experience with quality digging tools is the Ames True-Temper solid-socket line. Ames is an old American company that dates to the Revolutionary War (in defiance of the British ban on colonists making tools, to support the English metal-smith industry) and 99% of what they make and sell is cheap box-store “homeowner grade” stuff but their solid-socket contractor-grade tools are the traditional quality Jacob mentioned. And priced accordingly… basically about $75 per spade or shovel. The single most versatile is the “post spade” – a wide, heavy forged sharpshooter that will move cut a new water line from the meter to the house as fast as a backhoe without tearing up the lawn, and takes an edge like a good knife. I’ve never had to use a digging tool in a defensive role but a nice sharp post spade will cut a wrist-thick root with a single bayonet-the-wounded stroke.

      I’ve never seen the Cold Steel tactical shovel but I knew several plumbers that had (and guarded carefully… good tools have a tendency to “walk off” with co-workers) the Glock e-tool. Plumbing in Houston in the older neighborhoods involves a lot of time crawling under pier-and-beam (up on blocks) houses and the Glock e-tool is a lot better than the surplus-store looks-like-milspec versions for getting into or out of a tight spot while laying on your belly.

      Far as digging/ cutting tools go… check out the 10″ flat-tip Ontario machete. My basic tool… chopper, pry-bar (the blade is a quarter-inch thick) and a pretty good trowel. About the right length for a brush knife (most machetes are too long) and another sturdy, comparatively pricey bit of old-company Americana that will get lost or stolen long before it breaks.

  10. Since Eric Maria Remarque’s _All Quiet on the Western Front_ has been mentioned–thank you Earl!– I might mention that the infamous WWI “saw-back” Mauser bayonets were initially issued to German field pioneer battalions in an attempt to reduce the load of our capper pipe-smoking Fritz in the photo! Shortly, the propaganda mill turned up the idea that the “Hun” and “Sal bosche” had fiendishly contrived the saw-back blade as a particularly gruesome and grim hand-to-hand weapon designed to inflict particularly nasty wounds… Certainly all too believable from the inventors of the flammenwerfer and giftgas/poison gas attacks at Ypres. Anyhow, that is the story that went round about the pioneer bayonets.

    Sharpened entrenching tools/shovels are also widely mentioned on the Eastern Front in WWII, and even appear in Soviet combatives manuals intended for red army and partisans. Anecdotally, these were often employed at Stalingrad.

    • Thanks, David. Saw-back bayonets are usually not combat weapons but general utilities, the back of the bayonet being used to cut wood. They probably handle like machetes, but with a more specialized role in emergencies. Still, I don’t want to be at the receiving end, so I would counter with a shovel, and hopefully that’s the end of the scuffle.

      • Growing up my father had a war surplus saw-back bayonet. I think it was Swiss or German. Anyway, the saw on it actually worked to cut wood. Being as wide as it was it would not be as efficient as a hand saw, but the double row of teeth had set and were very sharp. A heck of a lot better than hand saws one finds in hardware stores these days. It was a funny comparison to the “Rambo” survival knife craze a number of years ago (of which no knife I ever saw would have been hood at sawing through anything but warm butter–but to be fair I think some of the more serious ones were meant to cut through air craft skin, not wood. On the end of a rifle it would have made a good (but heavy) pole saw.

        I’m really not sure how the thing was made. Hand saws are stamped, set, and then machine filed. As thick as the blade was, and with the double row of teeth, maybe two broaching operations? It looked too perfect to be done by hand.

        It was expensively made to cut wood; as a means to cause a worse stab injury, a simpler design would have been better at doing so (single row of teeth, no set needed, and deeper teeth–like a Rambo knife). The long length of saw bayonets make sense, the longer the saw the less-frequent the saw filings needed.

        • As far as bayonets and their original intended purpose of inflicting severe penetrating wounds are concerned, the best bayonets are probably the spike bayonets, particularly the Russian-style spike bayonets with long taper, triangular cross-section and deep side channels ( with pointed tip or sharpened chisel tip ). The puncture wounds inflicted by this type of bayonet tend to be very deep — easily penetrating and damaging vital organs and major blood vessels — and are much more difficult to treat.

          The conventional knife-type bayonet might look more spectacular, especially in modified “Rambo” form, but it is not as deadly in this one particular aspect as a spike bayonet. Where the knife bayonet works very well is as a multi-purpose tool that also retains a reasonable modicum of efficiency as a stabbing tool when needed.

          • I remember reading articles about enemy weapons in Viet Nam War era (the American one, that is) gun magazines that the perfidious Commies used spike bayonets designed to cause sucking chest wounds. I guess that justified napalm and Agent Orange, but it took me years to notice that the “commie” bayonets were originally used by the French and Imperial Russians. Two notes on sawbacks… I mentioned the Glock E-tool above; they also make a surprising value (Austrian quality for $40 or so) 7″ belt knife that has a sawback that is very similar to the one on a long-bladed Efrut 1915 bayonet my dad brought home from an estate sale when I was a kid. The same tooth pattern is on the wood-saw blade on most Swiss Army pocketknives; the authentic (not Chinese) ones will cut a 2 x 4 with surprising ease for a 3″ sawblade.

          • During the age of the muzzle-loaded musket [four and a half centuries!] the wounds caused by the triangular-section socket bayonets were certainly grim and gruesome. If not killed outright, a stabbing victim would almost assuredly die from the sepsis and infection of the bits of uniform and so on driven into the wound. If the wounded man survived, the bayonet wound never really healed and continued to weep and ooze for the remainder of the man’s life. In Texas History, Sam Houston had a groin wound from Horsehoe Bend in Alabama where Andrew Jackson and the allied Cherokee overwhelmed the Red Sticks and a chest wound from a bayonet that apparently always smelled. His predilection for very strong whiskey and lots of it becomes rather understandable.

            I’ve recently been disabused of the notion that the French ever nick-named the Lebel bayonet “Rosalie” but certainly it was a much more fearsome bayonet than anything the Germans produced… Although one wonders how much bayonets were actually used in the First World War what with machine guns, hand-grenades, artillery and so on… Small wonder that the bayonet became more and more of a field knife.

    • Thanks for the jog to the memory, David — Remarque did also mention the part about sawback bayonets as being a cause for any German troops captured with them in their possession being subject to decisive and unmerciful treatment at the hands of Allied soldiers for precisely that same reason / perception.

  11. Griping about loads – and having large ones – dates back at least to Marius and the Roman Army.

    That might literally be the first, as the Roman Army was one of the first really Organized ones – and anyone before the the Marian Reforms didn’t write their gripes down anywhere that survived.

  12. All please. Go to Google, do Advanced Search then type in “Soldiers in Afghanistan”, and next line down type in “Pictures.” This may give you some idea of what soldiers are carrying. If the entrenching tool (GI’scall’m E-Tool) was a great fighting item … Poppa Sam would be issuing them with basic instructions fighting techniques or; of the 10’s of thousands of GI’s having been in “hand-to-gland” (GO nomenclature) situations since the 60’s some wily jaundiced eyed troop would have gotten the word out “HEY guy’s the E-tool is great close in weapon”. Certainly there are historical accounts of the E-Tool been wielded with great effect, but so have hatchets! Every pound of weight you add,a pound of strength can be lost. There are a lot of neat things, and that is how soldiers wind up looking like a two legged surplus store!

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