Key Point: A bad gun with a bad buying contract caused hell for British soldiers entering World War I.
At the turn of the 20th century, Canada was dependent on Great Britain for rifles to equip her army. In 1901, however, a request by the Canadian government to purchase 15,000 Lee-Enfield Mark I rifles from Britain was denied. The British were in the process of upgrading and replacing rifles used in the Boer War, and with first priority given to arming their own troops, there were no rifles to spare at the moment for the North American commonwealth. This rankled Canadians. It was a time of growing nationalist sentiment; many felt that it was time to loosen ties with the mother country and exert more national self-sufficiency. The issue also brought an important question to light. What would Canada do for rifles and other military equipment she depended on from Great Britain, if the vital trans-Atlantic supply line was severed?
Circumstances had created an opportunity for the Liberal government of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier to manifest Canada’s growing nationalism. Fueled by the political appeal, coupled with the practical reasons certainly present behind the endeavor, the Canadian government sought a rifle it could manufacture at home, for its own troops.
Sir Charles Ross: Inventor of the Ross Rifle
Enter Sir Charles Ross, the right man in the right place with the wrong rifle. Ross was a Scotsman, the ninth Baronet of Balmagovan, an Eton graduate who had served with Lovat’s Scouts during the Boer War and had marketed a light sporting rifle in the United States.
Coming to Canada in 1897, Ross submitted some of his .303-caliber rifles with their straight pull, back-and-forth bolt actions to Canadian Minister of Militia Sir Fredrick Borden, in early 1901. Borden was impressed not only with the Ross rifle, but also by the fact that it could be manufactured in Canada, at Ross’s factory in Quebec City. Borden’s good opinion, however, was not enough to seal the deal on an arms contract, so a five-man departmental committee was appointed “to enquire into a report upon the merits of a rifle invented and submitted by Sir Charles Ross.” One of the committee members was Sam Hughes, who was to become the Minister of Militia and National Defense at the outbreak of World War I and would figure prominently in the Ross story.
Flaws of the Ross Rifle
Tested head to head with the Lee-Enfield Mark I, the Ross did well in some of the trials but came up short in other crucial ones, such as the endurance test. Some 1,000 rounds were fired through each rifle and, while the Lee-Enfield functioned well, the Ross repeatedly jammed. After the 300th round, the heat of firing melted away the foresight, which was fastened with common solder. Ross explained that prior tests had been conducted with ammunition of American and Austrian manufacture and that “the standard called for in the manufacture of British .303 cartridges is not of the same precision and quality of material hence greater limits have to be allowed.” His dubious explanation was accepted by the committee.
Already the enterprise was off on the wrong foot. Due to Borden’s choices, the investigative committee leaned in favor of the Ross. It was obvious that no accurate appraisal of anything can result from a biased investigative body. Hughes in particular championed the rifle, and his stubborn resistance to evidence that contradicted his opinions bordered on the irrational. To the end he would insist that the Ross was superior to the Lee-Enfield, even after thousands of Canadian soldiers had simply thrown theirs away on the battlefield.
If the weapon had flaws, so did the purchase contract. Under its terms, Ross was to provide 12,000 rifles during 1903 and 10,000 every year thereafter, with a 75 percent advance on all rifles ordered for the duration of the contract, which was not stipulated. The cost of the Ross was not to exceed that of a Lee-Enfield in Britain, yet the price set was $25, compared to $18.27 the War Office paid for a Lee-Enfield. The contract also stated that materials and machinery Ross needed to import to meet the manufacturing requirements were to be exempt from import taxes. Because there was no division outlined between military and sporting rifles, Ross could get all his imports duty-free, regardless of whether they were built for government contract or not. There was no guarantee Ross would provide more rifles in the event of a national emergency, only that he would provide 10,000 annually after the initial 12,000. There was also no mention in the contract of providing a bayonet.
There were other signs of trouble with the Ross. In an 1892 report by the U.S. Chief of Ordnance, the same type of jamming and stiff operation problems were encountered. Although sharing the same caliber ammunition, the Ross and Lee-Enfield did not have interchangeable parts. British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain warned that adopting the Ross would destroy “the absolute uniformity of pattern necessary when Imperial and Colonial troops fight side by side.” A May 1902 test at Hythe, England, concluded “the inferiority of the Ross was very marked” in comparison to the Lee-Enfield. The results were passed along to Canada by the Colonial Office, which opposed adopting the Ross.
Putting the Ross Rifle Into Service
Undeterred, Borden encouraged the North West Mounted Police to adopt the Ross, which it did in 1902, only to withdraw the rifle five years later due to its defects. Attempts by Sir Charles to sell the Ross to Australia and New Zealand fell through after those countries heeded Chamberlain’s warning regarding uniformity. Attempts to sell the rifle to Great Britain and Turkey fared no better. But in Canada the deal was sealed. The results of the Hythe tests only arrived after the contract had been signed, and the government was not about to back out of it. Events were to prove that they should have done so anyway.
By 1907, the Conservative opposition in Parliament had begun attacking the Ross rifle policy of the Liberal government, citing a report of injuries caused by the rifle blowing up and reports from the militia that a large number of rifles they had received were useless. By the end of 1905 they had received much fewer than promised; a mere 1,861 rifles had been delivered, including those supplied to the Marine department and NWMP. With $600,000 having been advanced on the 1903 order, this translated into more than $440 per rifle.
Sam Hughes, a steadfast supporter of the Ross, was a member of the Conservative opposition and a useful ally for Borden in blunting the mounting attacks on the Ross. Amid strong condemnation of the Ross by his colleagues, Hughes went on proclaiming that the rifle was “the most perfect and complete in the world.” Appointed chairman of Canada’s first Standing Small Arms Committee, Hughes made it a priority to ensure that the Ross remained in service.
The Ross’s superb accuracy made it an excellent target rifle. Its straight-pull bolt action gave it a faster rate of fire than the Lee-Enfield’s traditional turn-and-pull action, and it was originally lighter and shorter than the Lee-Enfield as well. It performed well during the Bisley target shooting competition, and sport shooters praised the rifle’s performance, but the competition was held under relatively clean and controlled conditions compared with the grueling reality of trench warfare soon to come.
“To Hell With the Gun, I’ll Take a Club”
By the time World War I began in 1914, numerous modifications had made the Ross Mark III eight inches longer and more than a pound heavier than the Lee-Enfield. When used in training in Quebec, one observer noted that the Ross “seemed to misfire too frequently for rifles that were going to be asked to stop the German rushes.” He also noted that “the bayonet had an unfortunate habit of jumping off the rifle when firing was carried on with fixed bayonets.” In his opinion, the Ross’s rating as a combat rifle was summed up by a soldier who after several attempts to keep the bayonet on said in disgust, “To hell with the gun, I’ll take a club.”
Hughes, now Minister of Militia and Defense under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Borden, stated that the men leaving Quebec for the war had been trained to use the Ross “as no man had ever handled [a rifle] before.” Nevertheless, complaints continued during training on Salisbury Plain in England, coming to a head when the First Canadian Division went into the line at Neuvelle Chapelle, France, in 1915.
The final verdict on the Ross was rendered in the vile ooze of mud, filth, and rotting corpses that characterized trench warfare during the Great War. From the first day of fighting, the frequent jamming of the Ross forced soldiers to strike the bolts with entrenching tools or boot heels to clear them. The problem was attributed to the British ammunition being used, which was slightly larger than Canadian- manufactured rounds, but a significant factor was faulty manufacturing that resulted in deformed firing chambers. Long and unwieldy, the Ross was also not well suited for use in narrow trenches. Soon, British Small Magazine Lee-Enfield rifles began appearing in the Canadian ranks, causing First Division commander Lt. Gen. E.A.H. Alderson to issue an order that his men were not permitted to be in possession of SMLE rifles. It was an order largely ignored.
If earlier investigations had repeatedly given the rifle a pass and rendered a skewed verdict, the Canadian soldiers in the trenches did not. In April 1915, after the bloody fight at the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, which also saw the first gas attacks of the war, 1,452 of the 5,000 surviving Canadian soldiers threw away their Ross rifles and picked up Lee-Enfields from British casualties. The verdict of the fighting soldier had been delivered. With confidence in the rifle badly damaged, British Commander in Chief Sir John French issued orders rearming the First Canadian Division with the SMLE.
Not all the reports from the line were negative; the superb accuracy and faster loading capability of the Ross made it an excellent sniper’s rifle, as Sergeant William Carey, one of Canada’s top snipers, discovered one morning at St. Eloi. He and a German sniper spotted each other at the same time and both fired, each missing the other. But the bolt action of the Ross gave Carey the edge; he was able to reload and fire faster than the German, and his next shot was lethal. Although it would be replaced as the standard issue service rifle, the Ross would remain a valuable sniper’s weapon.