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.
The Politics of the Ross Rifle
The Ross rifles issued to the Second Canadian Division before it deployed to France in September 1915 had some improvements such as resizing the chambers, but the results when they engaged the Germans in October were the same as those of the First Division. The Ross rifle was simply not designed to contend with such conditions.
Hughes’s own son, Lt. Col. Garnet Hughes, stated that “the Ross is not a perfect mechanism,” and Third Division commander Brig. Gen. M.S. Mercer warned, “To longer withhold the issue of the Lee-Enfield rifle and compel the men of this division to use the Ross rifle would be criminal in the extreme.” Hughes refused to budge. He maintained that the Ross was “the most perfect military rifle in every sense in the world today,” denouncing anyone who criticized it. He insisted the problems were caused by faulty ammunition and declared, “I will swallow any Lee-Enfield that does not jam when I fire it.” In a mind-boggling display of delusion, Hughes even stated in Parliament that the Ross was so popular that “the Canadian soldier has to sleep on it or the British soldier would steal it from under him.”
Hughes bristled when First Division commander Alderson tried to replace shoddy equipment during training on Salisbury Plain and issued a questionnaire to his officers for feedback on the performance of the Ross. After the Second Battle of Ypres, Alderson eventually recanted his order that prohibited any man from throwing away his Ross and picking up a Lee-Enfield, writing in a report to Canadian Chief of the General Staff Maj. Gen. W.G. Gwatkin that “the experience of the battle showed that the Ross jammed so badly that I was obliged to let this order die a natural death.”
The issue of Lee-Enfield rifles to the First Division caused Hughes to explode, calling Alderson’s concerns over the Ross rifle “absolutely absurd and ridiculous.” Alderson eventually became commander of the entire Canadian Corps, but Hughes had not forgotten his opposition to the Ross. He conspired to get Alderson fired and finally succeeded in the spring of 1916, when the general was accused of being “incapable of holding the Canadian divisions together.” But everyone knew the real reason Alderson was sacked. His opposition to the Ross rifle had cost him his job.
The End of the Ross Rifle and Sam Hugh’s Career
By the following summer, time was nearly up for Hughes and the Ross he so staunchly defended. General Sir Douglas Haig, the new British C-in-C in the field, ordered the Ross rifles in use by the Second and Third Canadian Divisions to be replaced by the Lee-Enfield, with the acquiescence of the British and Canadian authorities. Haig wrote to the War Office: “I have satisfied myself, after extensive enquiries carried out throughout the Canadian Corps, that as a Service Rifle, the Ross is less trustworthy that the Lee-Enfield, and that the majority of the men armed with the Ross rifle have not the confidence in it that is so essential they should possess.”
Hughes did not last much longer than the rifle. Borden, whose face would end up on the Canadian $100 bill, fired him at the end of 1916. Hughes, who was in London, had crossed the line one too many times, defying the prime minister’s orders and accusing him of being a liar. After managing to hold onto his job for half the war, Hughes was finally gone.
Any political or economic appeal to the stubborn intransigence of a megalomaniac defense minister should never have stood against the opinions of those who mattered most—the soldiers themselves. The only truly accurate verdict on any equipment taken into battle comes from those whose very lives depend on it. They always deserve the last word. Ignoring what they have to say, quite simply, costs lives. n
Originally Published in 2018.
This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.