We have looked at the General Service shovel on the blog before, but in equally widespread use was a full size pickaxe and examples can be seen in use in both the Great War and in the Second World War, as here with a Canadian soldier training in the UK before D-Day:The pickaxe has barely changed shape or purpose in over a thousand years, and as a tool it was invaluable for breaking up ground to make spade work much easier. This example dates from the Second World War and consists of an iron head and hickory shaft:For ease of transport, these two components can be separated:The shaft is tipped with an iron ferule to prevent the grain from splitting from the impact of the pick on rocks and ice hardened ground:It is very faint, but the shaft is marked with a /|\ mark and dated, although I cannot make out the exact year of manufacture:The head is much more clearly marked and dates from 1943, again with a nice clear /|\ War Department ownership mark:The two ends of the head are different with one being very thin and pointed:And the other wider and flatter in profile:Pickaxes could be used for other purposes as well as digging. Tom Perrin was one of those retreating to Dunkirk in 1940:
Soon after midday we were ordered to render our vehicles useless by smashing the engines, radiators etc. with sledge hammers and pickaxes
Pickaxe handles were also regularly used as improvised batons for riot control, a practice that was to continue into the 1970s. Burnham Blaxey was a Royal Military policeman in World War II:
When Guard Duties were allocated to us we patrolled as a double picket in a two hour patrol using pickaxe handles in lieu of a rifle as a means of self defence. They can be quite a formidable weapon used skilfully.
This account describes training in their use in the 1950s:
In the 1950s the RN used to post an overnight picket at our Tipner rifle range in Portsmouth – the IRA were thought interested in stealing ammunition that was kept there, so the picket was armed with pickaxe handles! Mercifully Paddy didn’t materialise. RN Seaman officers were all taught how to use a pickaxe handle as part of their five-day course in Land Fighting (Pongo officers spent two years on this at Sandhurst but then we’re brighter). As I recall, the idea was first thrust forward horizontally into the stomach. Target doubles up so bring the woodwork up smartly under his chin. Target will then obligingly fold backwards, presenting his midship section and so enabling a third stroke which is a wild swing upwards which comes to a halt between the legs. Then (optional) hold the helve horizontal across his face and break his nose up a bit. After that just whack him for a bit of fun. The instructor (RM Sgt) then taught us how to take someone’s eyeball out with one’s thumb.
The handles were also apparently to be used as an improvised measure in the field and so were to be by regulation exactly three feet long.
Since writing the post above I have picked up a second WD marked pick axe head. It is identical in form to the example above, but the markings are radically different and the /|\ mark is stamped deeply into the metal. It is included here for completeness: