Boer War Page 20b

Technology at War

The Anglo-Boer War featured numerous innovations in warfare.

Canadian Trooper Uniforms
Canada's First Contingent had been infantrymen. Lord Roberts soon saw that what he needed was mounted troopers if he hoped to catch the highly mobile Boers on their ponies.

Uniforms can be used to identify the unit, and perhaps even the name, of a soldier, who one typically finds on an anonymous photo or CDV.

A good example is our "mystery trooper" right, on a huge tempera painting found at an antique market, but with no name attached.

Our mystery soldier's hat gave him away as a "Boer War trooper" which was confirmed further by his bayonet, a Lee-Metford, Pattern 1888 MK 1, "Type 2" no less! It was standard British issue in service from 1888 till 1903. (Details below.)

An informed and watchful viewer George F. Kush UE, CD of Calgary, AB, narrowed the trooper down even further, to being a member of Canada's 2 CMR (Canadian Mounted Rifles).

We are grateful to George for his observations, and explanations on how he came to identify the "Mystery Trooper."

Pistols of the 2CMR:
"The trooper is certainly a member of the 2nd Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles. Note the trooper's holster and revolver. Only the 2CMR's used the "Mexican-loop" holster, and they used it with the Colt Model 1878 DA "New Frontier" revolver. Note the revolver's "bird's head" grip - it is positively a Model '78. While Col. Lessard of the 1st Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles believed that handguns were unnecessary, Col. Evans of the 2CMR considered revolvers an excellent addition, ideal for scouting and close-quarter work.

"While the officers of the 2CMR carried their revolvers in closed holsters, the men used the Mexican-loop style. These holsters were supplied by Great West Saddlery of Winnipeg & Calgary and Alberta Saddlery of Calgary. While some of the revolvers were chambered for .44 WCF the majority were chambered .45 LC. Over the years I've had an opportunity to examine a great deal of material connected to the 2CMR and while I can't be 100% certain, I'm 99.9% confident that the trooper is a member of that organization. The fact that the painting surfaced here in western Canada also lends support to my position."

(Above right a Colt 1878 Double Action New Frontier revolver, and left a "Mexican Loop" type of holster (modern style, not Boer War.) The "loop" refers to the leather bands outside the holster proper, which could be either single, double, or triple. The trooper above is carrying either a single or double Mexican loop holster, a rig which originated in Northern Mexico in the 1870s and by 1900 was in widespread use across the northwestern USA and western Canada. The loops are what sharp-eyed George Kush spotted in the Trooper portrait.)

Pith Helmet: The war had started with everyone - even British mounted lancers (below the 16th Lancers, chasing General Cronje, stop for a deadly drink of "Chateau Modder") - wearing pith helmets, which were supposed to be the last word in headgear suited for campaigning in beastly hot climates. Left is a typical British helmet as worn by the Canadian infantrymen of Canada's First Contingent. (It is different from the "rounded and domed" American helmets of the period by being much more "peaked" and more drastically sloped fore and aft.)

Pith helmets had been worn for most of the 19th century, by the British Army in India, the Sudan, and Africa, where warfare was a slow and plodding business and where men fired their weapons standing proudly on their feet against sabre and spear-wielding tribesmen.

During the Boer War, the proud trooper who stood up to shoot, was a dead man.

Boer rifle fire was so accurate, over extremely long distances, that out of self-defence, everyone now lay down behind cover to shoot. But the back brim of the helmet (left above) came in contact with the trooper's back which tipped the helmet forward, and down over the shooter's eyes. Accurate shooting was impossible with this constant interference. Many troopers wore their helmets reversed for this reason; the shorter fore peak (above right) had more clearance above the back and so allowed the helmet to be tilted further back for better visibility.

The long-term solution was to change to a slouch hat or campaign hat like those pioneered by the Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders. Below are two Canadian trooper's hats from the collection of George Kush who describes their major features.

The hat left was worn in South Africa by 2 CMR Cpl. AJ Haddock.

"The crown is just over 6" in height, about 1" higher than the current RCMP pattern, and the brim is just a shade under 3 3/4" all the way round. RCMP hats are wider in front and back than at the sides. It's a good quality fur felt (not wool) but I can't tell you what grade. You'll notice that there is a snowflake pattern vent in the crown. Not much good for wet weather, but I guess it must have kept the inside a shade cooler. The size is 7 1/2. You'll notice that the crown is creased to the North-West - Canadian fashion."

The hat right belonged to Trooper J McCulla of the 2CMR. He certainly wore it to Boer War reunions and may have worn it in South Africa as well.

"The crown is a slight bit higher and the brim is about 3 3/4" all around. At some point the leather hatband was repaired and the stitches are hand-sewn. There's virtually no damage to the overall condition. It's about a size 7. I'm afraid that the colour in the photos is a bit off due to the lighting in my studio. They are both a shade of sandy brown, slightly darker than the current RCMP issue. Neither hat has ever had a badge attached to it, but that's not uncommon. A hat badge can be very bothersome and uncomfortable when worn low on a felt hat."

The Mauser vs the Lee-Metford
The magazine rifle had just been developed to super efficiency in the 1890s. Early in the century, muzzle-loaders were the chief military weapon for the foot soldier. The powder, the ball, the wadding, were all individually dropped, in turn, down the smoothbore barrel and then jammed in with a ramrod.

By the 1870s, bullet and powder were being manufactured as a single unit, in a casing or shell, with a detonating primer in the rear. But each cartridge still had to be loaded and shot singly.

The smoothbore musket, had also given way to the "rifle" when it was discovered that a bullet with spin - by adding spiraling grooves inside the barrel - would travel farther, faster, truer, and with more penetrating power.

The reenactors shown above are on actual Anglo-Boer battlefield locations including Biddulphsberg and Talana Hill, and at Onze Rust, OFS President Martinus T. Steyn's family farm near Bloemfontein.

The Martini-Henry (below), had been the service rifle of the British Empire from 1871 to almost 1900. It was the first rifle designed from the ground up as a breech-loading metal cartridge rifle for the British Army.

This rugged weapon was designed as a lever action rifle by Friedrich von Martini of Switzerland. Pulling the lever down, dropped the block, and allowed one to slide a cartridge along the groove in top of the lowered block right into the chamber. Lifting the lever raised the block over the rear of the chambered cartridge and pushed the hammer back.

For more info visit Jason Atkin at

The magazine rifle had then been developed, so that instead of loading single bullets, pre-loaded clips, or magazines, could be carried. The rate of fire of a rifleman had increased dramatically.

The state-of-the-art rifle of the 1890s was the German Mauser rifle, which the Boers adopted wholesale.

The British adopted the Lee-Metford magazine rifle in 1888, and began to phase out the older single-shot Martini-Henrys.

Many Boer farmers, like J. Bijeleveld and "Oom" Frederik of Dullstroom (left), were not "into" the latest in technology and still preferred to use their trusty, single-shot, Martini-Henrys, with its huge bullets, that boomed and belched a big cloud of smoke.

The Boer War Bayonet: To complement the newly introduced Lee-Metford rifle, the British Army adopted the Lee-Metford Pattern 1888 MK 1 bayonet (left). It was retired just after the Boer War. It's essential features included a dagger type blade, sharpened on both sides, and big brass rivets holding the wooden grips to the blade.

The extremely rare MK 1, Type 1, had 3 (1 large, 2 small) rivets on the grip with the oil hole among them. Below, a Canadian example from Kingston, ON. Few of these were ever produced.

It was soon replaced with the MK 1 Type 2, (all bayonets left and below), which had two large brass rivets positioned close together, set close towards the blade, and with the oil hole (shown below) beside the top rivet.
The later, MK 3 (left), moved the oil hole back to the metal pommel and spaced out the brass rivets more widely.

The scabbard for all three was made of supple black or brown leather, to which metal guards were stapled to protect it from wear from the sharp parts of the blade.

Bayonets have their life history engraved on them. On the "ricasso" (the part of the blade closest to the hilt) are stamped the crown of the reigning monarch, in this case the "flat-topped" crown of VR (Victoria Regina), and the date when the bayonet was made: Feb. 1897, and May 1894. Wilkinson was one of many companies that manufactured bayonets for the British Army.

Right the ricasso of a bayonet produced under the "domed" Crown of ER (Edward Rex) in 1903. In that year the Pattern 1888 was replaced with the 1903 Pattern bayonet.

The "pommel" of the bayonet (the metal butt end of the handle) often carried numbers which matched those of the rifle to which the bayonet was mated (see pommels left and above.) Sometimes even the name of the regiment was engraved, like in the case left, marking a bayonet belonging to the 3rd Battalion, Yorkshire Light Infantry.

Various proof marks (above) noted when a bayonet was re-issued after being stored during a lengthy period of peace.

It is an oddity of the Boer War, in the later stages, that bayonets issued to the men were rarely sharpened! The Boers were so elusive on their ponies and scooted away so fast from trouble that one could hardly get close enough to them to take a shot, let alone come to grips with them at bayonetting distance.

But did I draw it in action?
You ask me roughly now.
Yes, we were taking a kopje,
The foe were on the brow.
We drew and fixed our bay'nits,
The sun shone on the steel:
Death to the sniping beggars
We were about to deal.

Then, sweating and a-puffing,
We scaled the rocky heights,
But when we reaches the top, sir,
The foe was out of sight.

Has it e'er drawn human blood?
Yes once, I grieve to say;
It was not in a battle,
Or any bloody fray;
Twas just outside Pretoria,
The deed was never meant,
I slipped and fell on the point, sir,
Twas quite by accident.

  • Chorus
    Then here's to the British bay'nit
    Made of Sheffield steel,
    And here's to the men who bore it -
    Stalwart men and leal.
    And here's to the Millennium,
    The time of peaceful peace,
    When neighbours shall love each other,
    And wicked wars shall cease.
  • Chorus
    Then here's to the British bay'nit
    Made of Sheffield steel,
    And here's to the men who bore it -
    Stalwart men and leal.

You notice the dents on the edge, sir
At Bronkhurst Spruit they were done;
I was getting a door for a fire,
For out of wood we had run.
I was smiting hard at the door, sir,
Or rafter, I'm not sure which,
When I struck on an iron screw, sir,
And the bay'nit got this niche.

'Tis my mighty Excalibur, sir,
I've use it in joy and grief,
For digging up many a tater,
Or opening bully beef.
I have used it for breaking wire,
Making tents 'gainst rain and sun;
I have used it as a hoof-pick,
In a hundred ways and one.

Oh, how did the point get blunted, sir?
I was driving it home
As a picketing peg for my horse,
So that he should not roam.
I drove it in a little, sir,
And then in my haste, alas,
I stubbed the point on a rock, sir,
Some inches below the grass.

You ask if it e'er took a life, sir?
Aye, I mind the time full well;
I had spotted him by a farm, sir,
And went for him with a yell.
He tried to escape me hard, sir,
But I plunged it in his side,
And there by his own backyard, sir,
A healthy porker died.

But lest the military deem that the bayonet's days were over, British poet PT Ross (above), penned a poem which expressed the common soldier's feelings on the subject.
The Ballad of the Bayonet
From "A Yeoman's Letters," PT Ross, 1901

Did I ever use the bay'nit, sir?
In the far off Transvaal War,
Where I fought for Queen and country, sir,
Against the wily Boer.
Aye, many a time and oft, sir,
I've bared the trusty blade,
And blessed the dear old Homeland, sir,
Where it was carefully made.

Smokeless Powder

Chordite: In the old days muskets were used, and only really effective at close range of around one to two hundred yards. Men would have to advance out in the open against an approaching foe. So it took steely nerve to walk into the face of hundreds of men ready to unleash a massive volley against your unprotected front.

As rifles and better bullets propelled by better powders became available, riflemen could shoot from further and further away. During the American Civil War there were stories of men shooting at a mile or more. Rifles could now be used from concealed positions. The sniper was born.

There was still a problem. The sniper's position was easy to figure out with binoculars because a tell-tale puff of smoke revealed his position. But man's inventive genius soon had a solution for that as well. And the Boers were the first to capitalize on it.

Crack and Boom: In the clip above we feature a Boer shooting a "smokeless" Mauser and one shooting an old-style Martini-Henry which many of them still used because of its power to stop big game when hunting meat for the family. Instead of the "crack" of the Mauser it made a deeply satisfying "boom." But it also sent out a huge tell-tale puff of smoke. And unlike the Mauser which was loaded with clips, the Martini was a slow-shooting single shot rifle.

On the left are a huge, new Martini-Henry cartridge, and a relic from the Boer trenches at Magersfontein. Probably it spewed out death to a British Tommy at dawn on Dec. 11, 1899. Beside it is a Boer Mauser shell found on the battlefield at Hart's River. On the far right is a Lee-Metford cartridge found at Hart's River.

Also shown for comparison is a Canadian pom-pom 1 pounder machine gun shell from Hart's River, and a ball from one of Lord Methuen's shrapnell shells which exploded over the Boer trenches at Magersfontein the day before the battle.

Probably it was fired from the Canadian pom-pom below, photographed just a few days before the Battle of Hart's River.

c Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996 & 2000