Note: this very long and detailed article was put together in spare time over the course of two months after May 15, 2015. Feel free to just look at the pictures…
End of the Internship
My final week of interning with Parks Canada at Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Sites didn’t go quite as planned. I was there to do marketing, which usually meant sitting at a desk sending emails, but in my final week it meant shouldering a 1916 Lee-Enfield rifle and trooping through the woods firing blank ammunition. Oh, and a Bren machine gun!
One of the advantages of doing an internship in the Spring is that you can be around as the new summer crew trains and gets ready for tourist season. At Fort Rodd Hill, that means training for historic weapons demonstrations runs a day after the “how to accept credit cards” talk. As it does in most workplaces, right?
The new group of heritage interpreters for the site are excellent. I really enjoyed getting to know them and spending some time sitting in on their training. There was a fun atmosphere between us all, really relaxed but also keen to learn. While I was in training as part of my job requirements for the internship (even though I was training in my last week for things completely unrelated to my job), and they were brand new to the site, we still had a lot in common and were able to work well as a team. I wish them the best of luck this summer, but I know they’ll do fine!
Bring out the Guns!
As I had an office just around the corner from the curator, I was able to get sneak peaks at the preparations happening all week. Rifles magically appearing in the office, the sounds of bolts being worked behind closed doors, and muffled talk of “rounds for the musket.” I was able to help Dave carry some things over from the storage building on Wednesday, the first time I’ve ever handled a machine gun!
Not your typical curator’s office!
Thursday was when it all kicked off. The boardroom was converted to an armoury, the guns were brought down, and the team spent the whole day going through a chronology of modern weapons. Grant Tyler, Parks Canada’s military curator who teaches Parks staff historic weapons and tactical scenarios for demos, went through all the proper handling and inspection techniques to ensure all staff knew how to make safe any weapons that arrived on site or that belonged to the Fort. It is especially important to recognize the difference between live and dummy ammunition, as well as to know anybody handling weapons is operating under safe conditions.
While Fort Rodd Hill focused on 20th Century weapons, we also went through other eras of weapons to prepare for other timeline events that occur on-site during the summer. We learned about…
- The India Pattern Musket, the primary sidearm in the War of 1812. I’ve never had to use ‘frizzen,’ ‘half-cock,’ or ‘draw rammers’ in a sentence before, but I sure know how to now!
- The 1853 Pattern Enfield Musket (Crimean War), a major improvement in rifled musket technology that allowed troops to operate more individually than in dangerous large formations.
- The 1856 Snider Enfield Rifle, which could now use cartridges dropped into a breach block.
- The Martini-Henry, a remarkable lever-actuated rifle with NO SAFETY that was used in the North West Rebellion but not much else in Canada, although it was well-known for its use in the Zulu Wars. The British introduced it in 1877 but had moved on to other rifles in less than ten years. Can’t picture it? Just think of any cowboy movies (likely a Winchester rifle, but same idea).
- The Magazine Lee Metford, the first magazine rifle. While it wasn’t used by Canadians, it set the standard for the 10 round magazine. It also sparked the transition between black powder cartridges and the more powerful Cordite smokeless powder which required sharper rifling seen in the…
- Lee-Enfield Mk. 1 (1895), a remarkable gun that had some funny trust issues built-in. The magazine held rounds for quick firing, but the gun had a magazine cut-off so soldiers still had to load bullets one at a time, only disengaging the cut-off when ordered to do so. Was this because officers didn’t trust the soldiers to save bullets? Perhaps… It also had an innovative bolt that cocked the weapon as the bolt moved forward (saving time and actions), and is still known as the quickest bolt-action rifle in the world because of that.
- The Ross Rifle. Permit me a moment of history nerding out. I held a Ross Rifle. Ok, so many people have held a Ross Rifle, but nonetheless this is a rifle with a storied past and one that I have heard about for years in my First World War classes and books. The Ross replaced the British Lee-Enfield in Canadian Service in 1905. The Mk. 3 went overseas with the Canadian contingent in 1914/15, but it went through 80 variations in those 10 years! One major issue was with the type of ammunition it could use. While being the same .303 calibre as the Lee-Enfield, the Canadian and British-made ammunition was different. Canadian cartridge cases didn’t expand much at all when fired, but the British-made cartridges expanded just a tiny bit more, which caused hard extractions and jams the cartridge in the breach (so the weapon couldn’t re-cock). The rifle also didn’t do well at all when exposed to dirt, or mud…or water…..or really anything. The overly complicated sights could move with the recoil force, making them occasionally inaccurate, and it got overheated which led to even more jams. Mr. Tyler also described the gun as “not soldier proof,” meaning the bolts could be installed the wrong way around and it could fire back in your face. Take ALL of this together and give it to brand new soldiers at the Second Battle of Ypres (when the Canadians entered battle for the first time as a contingent) and…very quickly Canadians were taking the rifles of dead British soldiers. By the end of the summer, the Canadian contingent was refitted with British Lee-Enfields, and the entire Canadian army was refitted the following year.
- in 1915-1916, in comes the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield. This is actually an old cavalry carbine introduced at the end of the Boer War, but the idea was that everyone would get the same rifle from then on. The Mk. 1 was introduced in 1895, the Number 1 Mk. 3 was introduced in 1907, and then the Number 1 Mk. 3* (yes, that’s a star) is the one Canadians used in the First World War, the star indicating the magazine cutoff (above) was gone. This gun could still be in service in certain parts of the world (now the Mk. 4), and the Canadian Rangers even went back to using them in 2014 (although this link says they were phased out)! The Mk 1 (1895) was the one I used when stomping around the woods (see below).
- The Number 4 Mk. 1 was basically the same weapon but lighter, shorter, and with a different sight.
We also went through a few pistols, sub-machine guns and grenades:
- Sten Mk. 2 was a sub-machine gun first used on the infamous Dieppe raid. It had a 32 round magazine, but it was recommended to only load 18 rounds at a time so the spring doesn’t get overloaded.
- Percussion Revolver: We looked at an amazing 1851 Colt Navy model with an etched cylinder of ships. These are still common in Canada as they were widespread through cavalry units in the 1800’s. Each chamber needs to be loaded individually then put lard or oil on the top of each round so no chain reactions happen. While a six-shooter, it was normally only loaded with five rounds, and while widespread was slow to load.
- Enfield 1882 Mk. 2 revolver: this pistol was used by the North West Mounted Police and used a .476 calibre bullet, but could take ammunition from other guns.
- We also looked at two other pistols, one by Enfield and one by Webley. These were the standard service revolvers from the 1930’s through the end of the Second World War. Unlike the Colt, this revolver ejected all six rounds at the same time and could be loaded quickly.
- The grenades are common, with millions of copies being made. The #5 Mills Bomb was introduced in 1915 and the #36 was introduced in 1918 but remained the main British grenade through the 1970’s. The US Mk. 2 Fragmentation Grenade has a lever instead of a ring (like the older #5 Mills). We learned how to take the grenades apart and check for fuses and explosives, but thankfully were told to call the RCMP if we found anything, rather than attempting to remove it ourselves!
After going through all the firearms and learning how to make them safe as well as how to load and shoot them, we moved on to formation training. The best part about all this was Mr. Tyler demonstrated everything with toy soldiers! One of the best explanations was about the ‘tactical bound’, meaning the distance between the front section and the platoon commander. The bound could be a field or set of bushes, or something that delineates the separation between the front and the commander so the commander could still see the front but communicate easily with the section commanders in the rear.
Machine guns and toy soldiers!
Military movements are very complicated. I have studied formations/group makeups and some attack plans through researching in archives and studying for a history degree, but it is amazing what Parks Canada interpreters need to pick up in less than a day of training. Not only do they need to know the names and what each formation looks like, but they need to know each command, how to execute them, and how to command them as well (as some staff will reenact the role of company commander, sergeant, etc.). It all needs to be historically accurate too, minus the fact that Fort Rodd Hill National Historic site will demonstrate a frontal assault when that would rarely if ever be done at a section level.
Practicing using the Bren gun without ammunition
We also learned the proper techniques for holding weapons, firing, loading ammunition, and much more, including heading out to our makeshift range and yelling “BANG BANG BANG” when Sgt. Tyler gave us a command.
Day 2: Really Loud Noises
The second day of firearms training involved putting what we had learned into actual practice. I was a bit out of the loop already as the interpreters had been able to bring home training manuals to study, whereas I finished day one with emails and actual marketing work before heading home to watch TV.
Dressed in full period gear, the group spent the morning revising the load and fire steps of some of the guns we (they) would be using on site. I went off and helped curator Dave load some black powder charges for the musket, which we were hoping to fire. [note: we didn’t get to that day, but they did bring it out for the Firepower demo that Saturday. It didn’t work, which was a shame…).
Everyone got a chance to practice firing a few shots with the rifle they would be using when practising advances later that day, but we also tried the Bren gun (amazing, but I only got two shots off) and a pistol. The pistol was interesting, much harder to fire than I expected as it took some muscle to pull back the trigger. I don’t think I would have been great at accuracy had I had real bullets, because the weight of the gun and the effort to squeeze made my arm move up and down a lot. The rifles were easier, but WOW they make a lot of noise! They make so much noise in fact that although the Fort is quite secluded down in the woods, the staff had informed the Canadian Forces located across the bay, the local police, and local residents that we would be firing all day.
Click the following for videos of me firing the pistol and Bren gun:
The Long March
After lunch, Sgt. Tyler led us on a route march down the service road, going through formation drills and silent commands (which include some rather funny rude hand gestures!) and sending scouts ahead to survey corners and buildings. Even though this was just fun, we were loaded with blank ammunition and the full uniforms and heavy guns made our hearts race by both excitement and exertion.
Heading up the side driveway into the Fort area, we definitely got some funny looks by visitors and volunteers who were setting up tents for the weekend event. Sgt. Tyler, all smiles and friendliness would often halt our troupe with a rough yell, making us take a knee (oh those pants are scratchy) and turn all soft-spoken and joking to a long-time reenactor friend.
We began our attack training by marching in long winding circles towards a set of geese. Setting up our formation, with the Bren gun to the side, we encircled and charged, firing from the hip first then running in and screaming. The geese, for all it’s worth, barely moved, and just looked rather perturbed that we felt the need to be there in the first place.
Our attacks got a little more serious afterwards, storming through the bushes and trees behind the oTENTiks where the demonstrations would normally occur. Two times through yelling our shots out and making stuff up when asked why we were out of position and we were ready for the actual advance.
Ear plugs in.
We stormed through the trees in bounds, one section going five paces and dropping to the ground or a knee, firing as cover for the other group moving ahead by another five paces, and so on until the Sarge decided it was time to stand up and charge fully. I’ll admit I was a bit lost. For one thing, our guns only hold five rounds, and we very quickly ran out. Most of us had trouble re-loading. We also had ear plugs in and were somewhat deafened by the guns, so we weren’t paying attention to our line. Needless to say, we were not the most successful squad ever. All six of us plus the Bren section would likely have been shot before we made it to the treeline…
A second advance was a bit more successful (oh we got that oak tree we were charging for!) although we still ended up quite significantly past our original objective and in a line that looked more like a mountain range than a ruler. And we made a lot of noise!
Guns away, just for fun
Marching out of the woods, sweaty and blistered, knees aching and arms drooping, we sat down at the picnic tables to learn how to clean our weapons and to recover all unspent ammo (we needed to pick up all our cartridges and blank rounds that fell out when our guns inevitably jammed, so that helped slow us down).
This time of cleaning helped provide some reflection. We were charging through some woods, in a national historic site, with curious onlookers standing quite close by. We were relatively clean, had ear plugs, and were all over the place. Sure, we had only trained for one day prior, but we could all understand just a tiny bit the effort and training and fitness needed to be a soldier in the First or Second World War. We also understand that much more how difficult it would be in combat situations, with loud noises surrounding you, adrenaline pumping, and a (rather mild-mannered) sergeant shouting at you above the din. Our experience was just for fun, hard to imagine a real experience of war. What an experience.
I managed to pull a desertion as I needed to get back up to the office to finish closing down my files and computer as this was my last day at Fort Rodd Hill. Thanks to those who stepped up and cleaned my rifle for me, I appreciate it!
All in all, this was not a typical week in my marketing internship! But it was a really interesting one with experiences I’ll likely never have again!