Entrenchments were a prominent feature of the American Civil War. Earthworks were an established component of sieges but this conflict frequently saw troops digging in at more temporary positions. “Hard Tack and Coffee (p.361)” tells us that each corps of 23,000 men had six wagons loaded with entrenching tools that were provided to units that needed them.
In later wars infantry were issued entrenching tools as part of their personal equipment. SLA Marshal criticised this practice:
“The only amendment that might strengthen them would be to add that rations and ammunition should be specified only in the amounts which reason and experience tell us the Soldier is likely to expend in one day. Beyond that, everything should be committed to first line transport. This includes entrenching tools since twenty heavy and sharp-edged spades will give better protection any day to an entire company than 200 of the play shovels carried by Soldier”
(The Soldier’s Load and The Mobility of A Nation, p.57)
There will be situations where a unit cannot be easily reached by the company train. The best approach most likely lies between the two approaches. A unit will have some tools organic to it but also have access to more substantial items from the company or battalion. For the prudent civilian the approach is similar. One should have portable items with some larger items cached at base, home or with a vehicle.
Level of issue is another issue. Some argue that if the enemy is close half the unit should dig while the other half stands guard, so only half the men should carry entrenching tools. If on a mobile patrol only a couple of tools may be needed. In an urban sweep digging tools are of limited use but there may be a need for crowbars and axes. This last point illustrates something that should be borne in mind in the following passages. For simplicity I may use spade-type entrenching tools for illustration but the proposed ideas are equally applicable to other types of hardware such as axes, mattocks, picks, tomahawks, prybars and so on.
When I was writing about the soldier’s load it became apparent that entrenching tool covers and carriers were rather superfluous. When on the march the entrenching tool is best carried with the rucksack. Rucksacks have numerous pockets, loops and straps that can be used to secure such an item so a carrier that can be affixed to them is redundant. There are times when the rucksack is not carried but the entrenching tool may be needed, and may be needed in a hurry! The various belt mounted carriers in common use take up a lot of room and do not permit the tool to be brought quickly into action. This is why we have numerous images such as the one below. Assault troops ignore their belt carriers and tuck their e-tools through their belts. The belly position is not ideal if the soldier has to crawl or is forced to go prone by enemy fire. A better position is around the right hipbone, as was often done with tomahawks. See my previous blog on fast-drawing of items such as tomahawks.
One function that a carrier or cover does serve is to protect the soldier from the sharp-edges of his tool. There are simpler, lighter and more efficient ways of doing this. The image shows a simple guard used with a tomahawk. For a spade a U-shape can be made from plastic or aluminium tube or siding. Cord or elastic and hooks or simple knots are used to keep this in place. Such constructions do not prevent the soldier from drawing his tool in an emergency. A muzzled pick, tomahawk or spade are still effective weapons.
If a tool does not carry well tucked through the belt a simple “frog” can be constructed. The simplest is to tie a cord into a circle and pass it behind the belt, letting one end to pass through the other to form a simple loop. Loops like this are used to carry hammers on tool belts. If the carry is considered too loose the circle is reduced. Other tricks can be used. It is possible to tie a clove hitch without access to the ends of a cord. This can be done with the hanging part of the loop and the shaft of the tool passed through the centre of the knot. Such a knot can be prevented from collapsing when empty by the simple use of a paperclip or loop of fishing line.
A better frog can be created from nylon strap. Ideally a second strap would be sewn to the outside of the loop, the outer having either a fastex or double-D buckle. The outer strap can be tightened when a more secure grip on the shaft is wanted, the buckle easily released when it is not. To the frog I would add one or two eyelets to which a short length of cord can be attached. For articles such as tomahawks the cord can be passed over the top of the tool and tucked down inside the loop, which is then tightened. This helps secure the tool but is easily released by the action of pulling upwards on the head.
Potentially, items such as machete sheaths and even pistol holsters could be designed to be compatible with the frog.