Martini-Enfield .303

The knowledge, expertise and care lavished on weapons brought to the Christchurch range is impressive and complimented by the informative articles in the house magazine. After reading one such article on the Martini-Henry .450 Rifle by Brian Thornton I wondered if, in addition to knowing the cold facts and details, owners knew the life story of the firearms they cherish. Finding out where a rifle was used, who used it and why is often more difficult than tracing a family tree but I am very fortunate in knowing, in pretty good detail nearly 100 years of the history of one of my rifles.

Most of the story takes place in Ireland and just as there are no simple stories concerning Ireland there are no simple ways of telling them. Add to this the fact that there are as many versions of a story as there are people who tell it and there exists a recipe for confusion and disaster in the telling. So I’ll do my best and hope I carry you with me.

I own a Martini-Enfield .303 rifle. This rifle has been in my family’s possession three times in the last 75 years and its story involves a revolution, a mutiny, 2 armies, 3 governments and 2 families.

First the hard bit, Irish Politics. During the previous centuries there had been a number of uprisings and rebellions. All were put down with a ferocity reserved for Ireland. Because Ireland offered a back door into England, indeed the Spanish, French, Dutch and the deposed Catholic monarch James II had all tried at one time or another to defeat England by attacking through Ireland, any uprising was considered treasonous regardless of the cause. A proverbial stab in the back by an ungrateful country.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the situation had changed significantly. Britain ruled the waves and was confident that no enemy could sustain an attack through Ireland without becoming isolated and then dealt with. It had signed the entente cordial with France and in so doing ended a thousand years of warfare and was satisfied that the Irish, their population decimated by famines and a Diaspora, posed little threat. Gaelic ceased to be the language of the mainly catholic poor population as English became predominant. The industrial revolution in the form of heavy industry, flax and mills were under protestant control mainly in the north and restrictive trade tariffs were removed enabling the country to become self sustaining.

In 1912 serious consideration was given to a form of independence for Ireland. Indeed there was an unofficial government in Dublin and in April that year, the Home Rule Bill for Ireland was passed by the House of Commons in England.

Where my rifle had been previously, I have no idea, but in 1912 it lay with others greased, wrapped and sealed in a wooden packing case. There were hundreds of such cases stored in one of the facilities in Britain.

In Ireland, meantime, the situation was confused. The industrialists, mainly but not exclusively protestants in the north, considered the Home Rule Bill threatened their hard won way of life and undermined the principal of Empire in general and they petitioned Parliament with the Ulster Covenant, signed by Irish protestant men and, unusually for the time, women. In the rest of Ireland there were those, mainly but again not exclusively catholic ( previous uprisings had sometimes been led by protestants), who didn’t believe the Home Rule Bill went far enough and some wanted full independence. For the vast majority neither the Home Rule Bill nor the opposition to it from whatever quarter made any difference to their lives and they kept a low profile.

The Header of the Ulster Covenant 1912

If you have got this far, well done. Take a break because my rifle is about to make its entry into the story. You may be unsure by now as to where I am coming from with this narrative and if that is the case then you are starting to comprehend Irish politics. There are a few more changes to come so try to spot them.

In Ulster my paternal grandfather was a principle organiser amongst other industrialists and politicians and was one of the first to sign the Ulster Covenant. This document resides in Belfast City Hall and is viewable through the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland web site (PRONI). The family legend is that it was signed in blood which may explain why my great uncle died with anaemia if, as claimed, he was used as the inkwell. That’s an aside and back to the story.

Cecil ‘The Inkwell’. Signed up to the Covenant.

A petition was not enough. The protestants felt themselves under threat from the rest of Ireland and betrayed by England and in1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed by Sir Edward Carson and drill was permitted. In the same year the House of Lords rejected entirely the Home Rule Bill, and it was shelved in 1914 ‘for the duration’ of the war.

The events of 1912 and early 1913 caused alarm in three areas. First, republican or separatist sympathisers were alarmed at the loss of the Home Rule Bill, fearing that even though, flawed as it was, it had failed but the UVF had not been disbanded. In response, they joined the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) which evolved eventually into the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Irish Volunteers were founded by Robert Erskin Childers DSO who served as a British officer in the Boer War but most importantly he was a protestant and author of the best selling book The Riddle of the Sands which was to influence British Naval strategic deployment for 30 years.

Secondly; senior British Army officers on the retired list, with Lord Roberts (of Indian Mutiny, Afghanistan and Boer War fame) were thoroughly opposed to the Bill and agitated at every opportunity.

Lastly, the British Government became increasingly concerned about events in Ulster and in March 1914 ordered the Army, based in Dublin to deal with the situation. 57 officers out of the 70 based at the army’s headquarters at the Curragh refused and threatened to resign en-masse rather than march on the UVF or Ulster protestants.

The Government, The Army and Ireland were in crises and it was just about to become a whole lot worse. My rifle was now on the move.

Still with me. Great. The next bit is really good.

And the UVF? They were marching around with nothing more than sticks and broom handles, like a Dad’s Army and they had revived the cult of King Billy. Alarmed at the formation of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, they were glad of the support of the disaffected army officers whose action caused a large number of obsolete rifles, (mine amongst them) to be removed from storage and together with ammunition they were smuggled into Ulster through the port of Larne in April 1914 one month after the mutiny in Dublin. The Royal Irish Constabulary, later to become the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC now the Police Force of Northern Ireland PSNI) took no action as dozens of carts, cars and trucks ferried the weapons into hiding. My grandfather took a very large consignment in eight trucks which he stored in the basements of the family homes in Lisburn and Bangor. This was later augmented by a huge consignment from Germany.

At around the same time a consignment of weapons were landed at Howth near Dublin by Childers and destined for the republicans. Although this consignment was intercepted by the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the army most were available for the Easter rebellion in 1916.

My rifle was now in the hands of my family for the first time. It was issued to the UVF, now 80,000 strong, trained and armed but just as it was growing serious, the crisis was averted by the starting of the Great War. The officers called off their mutiny, Most UVF men volunteered and became the 36th Ulster Division while 125000 men from the rest of Ireland, including many Irish Volunteers, signed up for King and Country. The rifles, including mine, were returned to storage into basements and other places.

Although the UVF were forgotten, the Home Rule Bill and independence was not and Britain kept several thousand troops in Ireland as much to prevent a rebellion by the IRB as to stop a German landing in spite of a chronic shortage of manpower at the front.

Just to balance things up I will now switch to the other half of my family, the catholic half. Three of my great uncles volunteered for the war service and marched off to France in 1915. The youngest was discovered to be 14and was returned to Ireland and was de-mobbed. Whatever happened to him is not known except that in 1916 he moved to Dublin to join the IRB and took part in the Easter Rebellion. In Ulster the rifle was re-issued and did not return to the family’s hands for 62 years.

There were further uprisings in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s before we get to the big one which began in 1968 and still runs today. Each time the rifle was available to the UVF.

We’re near the end now and you’ll be pleased to know that I will not delve into ‘The Troubles’ except to say how I ended up with the rifle. My introduction to the story so far was by my father after we had been to see ZULU. He recalled having seeing boxes of the rifles in the basement of one of the houses. Obviously the Zulu rifles were a different calibre but they looked pretty much the same.

The rifle, if you remember, was re-issued in 1916 to the UVF and was one of many weapons kept by all sides and passed on to succeeding generations. Its usefulness in this developing war diminished rapidly as the tactics of both the terrorist groups and security forces changed. Believe it or not, when the army was first deployed it marched up streets with banners and bugles, the so called Box Formation which was still being taught as tactical doctrine in 1973 by which time (4 years into the conflict) 203 soldiers had been killed and 2100 had been wounded. (Considerably more than Iraq and Afghanistan combined after the same length of time). The Martini-Enfield was a single shot rifle with a relatively long time required between reloading compared to the magazine fed and automatic weapons which were becoming increasingly abundant. The problem for the gunman was a simple one of zeroing. With so many troops and potential informers around just moving the rifle was difficult, let alone finding a place to zero it. With the long reload time there was no practical opportunity to fire a follow on after observing the fall of shot and, whereas in previous conflicts and the early stages of the ’69 situation it had value, by the mid ‘70’s it was relegated to no more than a nuisance weapon. It was still dangerous in the right hands but those hands were firmly clasped around Garand (.30/06 M1), AR180, AR15 and H&KG3’s. So the rifle went back into hiding and as a ‘rifle on the patch’ served the purpose of bolstering the moral of those who knew of it and forcing the security forces to expend effort in looking for it.

During 1976 whilst operating in East Belfast a corporal found weapons and ammunition in the attic of a terraced house. In 1979 the corporal, now a Sergeant and myself were working together and part of our remit was the use of captured weapons.

We had a store full of just about every conceivable captured operational weapon, accompanied by its evidence trail all signed off by the courts. In one visit to the armoury I spotted a Martini-Enfield in the racks. I signed it out with some ammunition and fired it on the ranges and at some point later, mentioned it and the family story to the colonel.

A year later, as I left the unit, he presented me with the de-activated Martini-Enfield with potted history. The rifle had been on the UVF inventory in 1976 and was found in a UVF supporter’s house. It even had UVF scratched into its butt so there was a good chance it had been one of those smuggled in to Ireland in 1914. Not only that but it was one of the weapons found by the Sergeant. The .303 ammunition found with it was manufactured in 1938 and 1952 and the rifle had been fired but against whom or what was never determined.

And what of it now that it has returned after all this time? The de-activation performed by the army was not enough to meet current regulations so to keep it from going to destruction it has had to be fully de-activated and certificated so that it can stay in the family for a few more years. As for the other weapons in the store; a few rare examples went to museums, some were presented but the rest eventually would have been destroyed. I must confess to destroying a number of them some of which would make you enthusiasts weep with rage.

That’s my story. It may not be fully accurate and the rifle may not be an actual rifle hidden in the family basement, but it could have been - and in Ireland ‘could have’ is good enough. What I find most curious is the number of coincidences’ and I wouldn’t be the least surprised if, during the missing years from its manufacture to 1912, it wasn’t made by, handled or issued to someone in my family or a regiment I served in. If I lost you in any of the history or politics do not despair. You’re in good company and there’s a ‘get out of jail free card’!

If you think you understand Irish politics then you have no real comprehension of the problem.

Peter McMurray