Boys with rifles and bayonets! What would health and safety say today?

As I have mentioned before, I always find it amazing the wealth of knowledge readers have tucked away in their memories.

Saturday, 19th October 2019, 7:00 am
Bluejackets on the march: A pre-March 16, 1921, photograph as Sennit hats were discontinued as part of naval rig after that date. Picture: Barry Cox postcard collection.

The photograph I published on October 11 of sailors marching with what I thought were Lee-Enfield .303 rifles was seen by eagle-eyed Ian Heath.

He believes they were actually carrying the Magazine Lee Enfield rifle (MLE), which was in service from 1895 to 1926.

Ian says: ‘The army and Royal Marines used the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) from 1903.

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‘I believe they were fitted with the 1888 'knife' bayonet, replaced in 1903 by a similar model, both about 11.5in long, and in 1907 by the 17in sword bayonet. As far as I can tell from the handles of the bayonets in the picture, they were 1888 models.’

Ian continues: ‘Unfortunately, with regard to the RN, it is difficult to date pictures by weapons, as the navy used obsolescent weapons, not replacing them as punctually as the army and Royal Marines as the navy wasn't going to fight major land wars.

‘However, looking at the photograph and the ladies' clothing as well as the bayonets, my guess is about 1900-1914. I believe the rifles would have been updated by 1918.

‘To further confuse matters, the British forces also used the Lee Metford rifle from 1888-1926, so the sailors may be carrying them! I don't think this is likely, because the Metford had to be replaced because its barrel damaged easily when using new-fangled cordite cartridges.’

Thanks Ian. I have published a cropped version of the photograph to show what he has described.

While on the subject of rifles... when I joined the navy in 1966 we drilled with the .303 rifle. What modern health and safety bods would say about under-16s drilling with a rifle with fixed bayonet and firing them on the range, I don’t know.

Anyway, there was a young lad who must have been the minimum height and weight to join the service. He had great problems drilling with the heavy rifle especially when sloping arms and giving the general salute then back to slope arms.

The instructor gave him much abuse although never swearing. I asked the instructor gunnery CPO if I could take this lad to the corner of the parade ground and give him one-to-one. The chief nearly exploded.

What he didn’t know was that I was streetwise. I had been working since I was 10 selling papers in the summer holidays with my own pitch at Clarence Pier. I had also been a bookie’s runner, taking winnings to pubs in the Commercial Road area, so I knew some rum characters. My father could also shout louder than anyone I knew and with three sons that was often.

This CPO screamed at me: ‘You think you’re that good that you can instruct? How long you been in this navy boy? Five minutes!’

He didn’t frighten me a bit and it all went over my head. I let it go but thought how stupid he was and wondered how he’d managed to get into a position to instruct 15-year-olds. It taught me a lot when many later years I had to instruct new guards in railway goods’ yards.

• Jane Smith has asked me to remind everyone that Monday (October 21) is Trafalgar Day and a service to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar takes place at the Nelson Monument on Portsdown Hill at 10.30am.

It will be led by a naval chaplain with a wreath-laying by a senior officer from HMS Collingwood and the Nelson Society.  All welcome.

• Roger Young asks if anyone remembers a bell near the arch leading into Victoria Park from the cenotaph alongside Portsmouth Guildhall. Apparently its purpose was to warn anyone in the park that the keeper was about to lock up for the night.

I know nothing of this bell. Does anyone else remember it and perhaps have a photograph?

• I wonder if any serving or ex-naval personnel know why they saluted the quarter-deck when boarding a ship of the realm?

Well, in pre-Reformation days a seaman took off any headwear before a crucifix hung on the break of the poop overlooking the quarter-deck.

The reverence expressed was in course of time transferred from the image to that part of the ship sanctified by its presence and eventually the salute became a mark of respect for the seat of authority.

Officers’ wardrooms also come from the days of sail. In the 17th century most ships had two gunrooms, one on the main deck and one on the lower.

With guns removed the upper became the stowage area for officers’ uniforms and became known as the wardrop or wardrobe. It was corrupted to wardroom and became a communal quarters for officers.