Sunday 27th of October 2002 11:50 AM 
 
 
Essay [11]

JUST ANOTHER BOER WAR RIFLE?
By Keith Dixon



"303 Lee Enfield Rifle for Sale "

It was just too difficult to resist. Many an ex-serviceman is familiar with the feel, smell and kick of this rifle. After all it was the mainstay of the British and Commonwealth armies from 1888 until the 1950's. In addition, this one came with an interesting story told by the policeman who was selling it. He was given it by his aunt and now had to sell to finance his divorce. The most compelling aspect of the sales pitch was that "the rifle had been taken from a British soldier" during the Boer War. Was this just a romantic story to bump up the price? Buyer beware! It was however in good condition and was complete in every manner. Besides, this story could always be repeated over a braai and a few beers. So the sale was made.

What I didn't realise was that this was to be the first step in a journey which would take me over the battlefields of the Boer War and provide the privilege of meeting a wide variety of South African people. From a traffic policeman who once ticketed me for speeding; a crusty South African Police colonel; a history professor, and a wide range of people from varying backgrounds that reflect our nation's history. In addition I would not be satisfied until many hours of research on a wide variety of subjects were completed.

From the external markings the rifle was officially identified as a .303" "Magazine Lee-Enfield (MLE) Mk 1* made at the Royal Ordinance Factory in 1899. It is estimated that some 750 000 examples of this model were made, so it could hardly be considered as unique in any way. (See details of Rifle)

I wonder...
Shottists, Collectors and Historians find it difficult during solitary moments not to imagine who previously handled a weapon. They often talk of "if only this rifle could talk, what stories it could tell ." I was no exception. Might it be possible that there was some element of truth in the story? Had it really been taken from a soldier? Who was he? Could I possibly find just one soldier from the thousands who served in those troubled times? I should have known better than to start the journey.

There were a few clues to give some credence to the ownership. In the butt were 2 firearm licences dated 1940 and 1952. The first hurriedly obtained when the Smuts government was anxious to be aware of the location and ownership of weapons that may fall into the hands of German sympathisers. All were issued in the name of Schutte, Dutch for Shooter, by the magistrate in Senekal in the Eastern Free State. This was the base of very active and successful commando unit during the guerilla phase of the war. Commando units used their personal weapons but did not pass up the opportunity of utilising captured rifles. Many group photographs show them holding a wide range of weapons, including the "Long Lees". I have been unable to confirm that Mr Johannes Schutte was a member of the Senekal Commando as his daughter died in 1997.

Traceability of the rifle
This mark of rifle did not enjoy a reputation in the field as it was found to shoot both 12" (300mm) high and to the right. To counteract these shooting tendencies the field armourers would fit new sights and carry out other improvements. These could be identified by specific marks traceable to specific dates. It is reasonable to assume that the absence of these marks indicates that the weapons were not in official control on those dates.

In the case of this weapon, no trace could be found of any marks later than 1901.

The butt of the rifle also showed stamps referring to the Royal Ordinance Factory and a 1901 date. More prominent however are "SAC" and the numbers 3, 0 and 1. A smaller, but very significant marking, is a marking "0371"

The SAC refers to the South African Constabulary, the forerunner to the South African Police Service. (See formation of South African Constabulary)

Limiting the options
To conform to the story I would need to find an incident that fitted the facts. The rifle, formally owned by the SAC had apparently changed 'ownership' to a commando operating in the Free State area. Referring to a wide rage of references, I was eventually trace an action that took place in the Orange Free State called "Slangfontein" that took place on the 19th September 1901. (See Action at Vlakfontein and Slangfontein)

There is no other recorded event where the SAC surrendered their weapons. There is the likelihood of course that the weapon was captured during some other event that I have been unable to trace.

It is very significant that the casualty list of the South African Constabulary for that day includes one Private Smith W, Number 2371. Regrettably, records still retained by the South African Police in Pretoria do not show Private Smith or Smit. The name comes from the Times History of the War that is widely considered as reliable.

Is it likely that these 2 numbers can be tied together? A common practice in the British army is to refer to people by their "Last 3" service numbers This is of special significance with common surnames and "Smith" would fall into this category.

Rifles in service use are subject to many changes in their component parts. The barrel and action stay together, whilst the bolt is designed to be interchangeable. The wooden butts and forend take the brunt of rough handling and were changed regularly. The loss of a weapon is a serious offence. Is it reasonable to assume that to link the individual to a rifle, the service number would be used?

To conclude my search . . .
My research is still incomplete, for I need to close the following avenues:

- Was Johannes Schutte a member of the Senekal Commando at the time of the incident?

- Is the assumption that troopers used their service numbers to identify their individual weapons correct?

If these are confirmed, then I believe I have traced this rifle to the user. Should any readers have any information or suggestions, I would appreciate any help.

But be warned, dear reader. If this is the case, other avenues then open up. Amongst these might be:

· Who was Private Smith?
· Where was he from? South Africa, Canada, Australia, Canada?
· What brought him to the open veldt of the Orange Free State?
· What happened on that day?
· What happened to him afterwards?
· Did he keep a diary?
· Do his family know this story?

And what of Johannes Schutte? A similar series of questions would then relate to him. What stories they could tell?

Be prepared for an interesting journey. You will come to realise that war is not just national strategies and regimental tactics - it is about individuals with feelings and hopes, not very different from yourself.

If after all the work in putting this together is just a fanciful, imaginative and romantic story based on a series of unproven incidents, I have no regrets. I still own a magnificent example of a weapon of the genre that continues to give immense shooting pleasure. More importantly it has helped me understand more of my country's history. I have met some wonderful people, including the Ritter family who still own the Slangfontein farm. They and their neighbours were fascinated by the story I told them at my last visit and would be grateful if you were to add more to it.

In the end, I continue to find it strange and ironic that this weapon designed to kill has succeeded in bringing former enemies and others together. Perhaps another dimension will be added by responses from the use of the Internet?...

The Lee Enfield Magazine Rifle No 1*
This mark of rifle was the second in a series of what was to be a long pedigree of rifles issued to British and Commonwealth forces.

The "Lee" refers to a Scottish born American inventor, James Paris Lee (1831 to 1904) who responded to a specification of 1883 for a magazine rifle to replace the Martini Henry in general service use. This was at a time where the continental armies were developing similar weapons with smokeless cartridges. His bolt action performed well against competitors to be manufactured with a rifled barrel. This was designed by William Ellis Metford (1824 to 1899), an English civil engineer, who had perfected the combination of a .30" jacketed bullet and rifling method that bears his name. Hence the first generation of rifles was developed after trials in 1879, with the adoption of the Magazine Rifle Mark 1 in December of 1888. This would be more commonly referred to as the "Magazine Lee-Metford" (MLM). Changes to the rifling, sights and smokeless powder brought about the "Magazine Lee-Enfield" (MLE) in 1895. The "Enfield" is taken from the town of Enfield, long renowned for the manufacture of the famous "Brown Bess". Since the rifle was some 49.5" (1 257mm) in length, it is often referred to as the "Long Lee". Carbine versions were issued to calvalry units 39.5" (1 033mm) With a weight of 9lb 4oz (4.2kg) it was considered a heavy weapon.

The South African and other colonial areas were to provide sufficient active field tests for the new Mark 1 version issued in March 1895. Many of the units complained of the tendency to shoot high and to the right. This defect was eventually traced to the inspection methods at the factory. Various methods were employed to those weapons in manufacture, storage and in the field. By 1899 many had been issued to forces operating in the field.

This feature was enjoyed immensely by the Boer forces for they were armed with the Mauser Model 95, then considered as the best in the world. Together with their ability to use the available ground cover, high levels of marksmanship, horsemanship and self-dependence made them a formidable fighting force. Although standards of English marksmanship were starting to improve in the regular army units, this was not the case in the colonial or newer units. Even seasoned troops found it difficult to accurately engage an enemy at 200 yards whose field skills did not present a large target in sufficient time to "take a bead". Longer ranges simply compounded the error. It is this scenario we should consider when reading the circumstances of the participants at action of Slangfontein.
Whilst beyond the scope of this discussion, further developments and improvements were made with the weapon and cartridge. In addition, the war was to promote the application of revised training methods, including that of marksmanship and tactics. By the time the Great War of 1914 to 1918 was fought, the combination had been perfected in the Lee-Enfield No 3, Mark 1, affectionately referred to as "Smelly" (SMLE - Short Magazine Lee Enfield). It is said that the Germans thought they were facing machine guns during their attacks on entrenched troops. Developments were to lead to these and later mark being manufactured in Canada, United States, India and Australia. The Lee-Enfield would be known and loved by 3 generations of fighting men in many nations and theatres. A hardy companion in the field and on the parade ground that was to continue until the 1950's with the adoption of a new standard NATO cartridge and later a self loading rifle (SLR). With such a pedigree, it is not surprising that they are held in high regard by shottists, historians and collectors.

 

Main Essays Page - Next Essay

 

 

This site designed and maintained by Bowler Hat Design
All enquiries to info@bowlerhat.com.au
All rights reserved - 1996-2002, except content in the Public Domain.
No unauthorised copying or use of site material.

 

Links

Anglo Boer War Plezier Mauser Rifle
A Numbered Commemorative Series of 140 of the 7x57 mm calibre Plezier Mauser Rifle used during the Anglo-Boer War, on offer by Prima Seleksies

Enfield Rifles Project
The Enfield Rifles Research Project by David Stratton.

Rogaland Våpenhistoriske Forening (Rogaland Historical Weapon Association (RVF)
is a Norwegian organisation of weapon collectors, dedicated to the serious study of weaponry throughout the ages.

Further Reading

Bester, Dr. Ron. Boer Rifles and Carbines of the Anglo-Boer War. The War Museum of the Boer Republics, Bloemfontein: 1994.