Saturday, 31 August 2013

George Bone and the British Army 1889-1899

British Soldiers in Peace time uniforms 1870s or 1880s
On the 25th March 1889 in Gosport, George William Bone joined the Regular British Army as a Royal Engineer as he had a trade as a Wheelwright and having served in the South Hampshire Volunteers.

The Army was in a state of evolution and was far from its' completion. Indeed only lessons learnt during the Boer War and again on the bloody fields of France did they finally remove some of the notions and tactics that had been used so effectively against Napoleon a century before.

All Royal Engineers are trained as Infantry men and able to fire their Lee Metford (later Lee Enfield) rifles and cope under fire. They would also be given further training in their field of expertise as well as more general duties and skills.

The Uniforms had moved away from the traditional scarlet towards Khaki which was unofficially adopted in India in the 1950s but spread to General use after the battle of Gennis in 1885. A double breasted tunic was issued and was to be maintained by the soldier. Failure to do so would have led to disciplinary and pay stoppages for wear and tear.

For head gear the home regiments were issued helmets similar to the Prussian Pickelhaube in black with the regimental badge at the front. For active service in Africa and India the more practical Pith helmet was issued. However this was uniformly white and was obviously fairly visible over a distance and so soldiers were allowed to dye them. This was generally done with Tea but by the advent of the Boer War a cloth cover was provided for the helmet.

Gear was to be carried in pouches on belts and valise to distribute weight and allow soldiers to move more freely in combat with the pack as the standard kit carrier being relegated to marches and advances but not necessarily needed on the battlefield.

The Lee-Metford rifle was the standard rifle used by the British soldiers in the 1880s and was used up to and during the Second Boer War. The rifle used the Lee patterned rear locking bolt system which made clearing the breach easier than the predecessor the Henry-Martini as the bolt was above the trigger so the rifleman only had to move his hand a small way before pulling it to 60 degrees rather than the Mauser's 90. This should make the rifle more user friendly and up the rate of fire of the average infantryman. Indeed it had a rate of fire of 20 rounds a minute with the record being 38 aimed shots in a minute! This is despite having a magazine of 10 rounds and would require reloading the bullets which were either individually mounted or on strips of five .303 rounds.

This would have been the rifle George was trained with and used for most of his military career. It was, however being phased out by the time of the Boer war as it was still using black-powder loaded cartridges giving off smoke when fired. As the Metford could not be remodelled for cordite loaded cartridges without regular re-rifling and so an alternative was sought out.

The Lee Enfield rifle was basically the same pattern as the Lee Metford but with a squarer shaped rifling which had a greater durability with the increased heat and pressure of the cordite's reaction.

Both rifles were incredibly accurate over a range of 800 yards for the Lee-Metford and 550 for the Enfield and up to 1800 and 3000 respectively.

British troops were trained to volley fire in tight formation which could provide a deadly wall of fire. This had been standard drill for two centuries and had beaten many an advancing army. At the beginning of the First World War the German army believed that one British unit was solely armed with machine guns when in fact they were just well drilled rifle men armed with Enfields. Independent fire was not taught and soldiers were generally only allowed to fire when told to by their officers thus lowering the rapidity of shot. British officers were also prone to ordering their men to fix bayonets at the beginning of battles thus adding extra weight to the end of the barrel which severely affected their aims. Further to that they were trained to fight in close order infantry formations. These tactics worked against colonial armies at Omdurman where the enemy was lightly armed and would charge en-masse but the Boer would soon prove that an entrenched enemy with modern field guns and with trained marksmen would make short work of these formations.

Barracks life was fairly repetitive with early morning drill and inspection. As a wheelwright he would have been kept fairly busy with maintenance and training of young sappers in how to carry out the trade. As a Corporal he would have aided a Sargent in command of a squad.

Unfortunately, at the moment I know little of his military career beyond the Boer War and although it
Corporal Bone, Second from left, Second row
is possible he had served in India or Africa in any number of colonial conflicts I cannot say for certain.

I have been sent some pictures from his life, which I was exceptionally grateful for, including a picture of him in the Royal Engineer's champion tug of war (Catch weight?) team from Ireland 1897-8.

In 1898 he married Mary Ann Williams in St Mary's Church and together they moved to the Curragh Camp in County Kildare, Ireland where they would have lived in the married quarters or in the communal Engineers barracks. At the Curragh the divisions were hurriedly trained and amassed for the rising trouble in Africa.

As the tensions grew George found himself on a boat bound for South Africa as part of the defencive force to protect British interests.

This was a War that for the fighting man held little interest.Where as World War One would attract a jingoistic attitude, this was another Colonial bush fire to stamp out as far as they were concerned.

Whilst some were no doubt moved by the plight of the Uitlanders or that some of the younger lads were excited to see action I cannot help but think that George had an eye on the horizon and his wife and young son who was born in January 1899. Family myth says that he never saw his boy Albert born but at the moment but he did and didn't depart to South Africa until the summer of that year. It was a long cruise south taking several weeks in which they would carry out ship duties and have morning inspections and maintain their kit. I can't help but think that in the quite or boring times he may have had thoughts about what they would face in Africa, the war, the battles and duty mixed with feelings of regret at leaving Mary and his boy, that he barely knew behind in Ireland.

1 comment:

  1. I am most interested in this article. I think my grand uncle is in the tug of war photograph. His name was John Moore. Have you the names of the participants or even a date this event was held? Thank You, Martin Moore. My email address is