Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Martini-Henry's Baptism of Fire in the Malay States

In popular culture, when the vast majority of people think of the British Empire, they envisage a redcoat soldier in his white sun helmet clutching his trusty Martini-Henry rifle. In the film 'Zulu', when Colour Sgt. Bourne remarked that it was a miracle their outnumbered outpost had managed to defeat the Zulu army,  Lt. John Chard famously replied "If it's a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it's a short-chambered, Boxer-Henry .45 calibre miracle." Martini–Henry variants were the weapons of choice for the British army in the last three decades of the 19th century, during the height of Britain's empire building days in Asia and Africa. But not many realise that the very first time this iconic weapon was fired in anger was in the Malay States of Perak and Sungei Ujong during the war in 1875-1876.

The Martini-Henry first entered service in 1871, replacing the Snider–Enfield muzzle-loading rifle. The Martini-Henry was the British army's first rifle that was designed from the outset as a breechloader and, as a result, had a faster rate of fire and a longer range than the Snider. Utilising the .577/450 Boxer-Henry cartridge, it also had a very high calibre and was to prove a real ‘man-stopper.’

However, the new weapon was not without its faults. As service battalions and the Navy began to train the men in its use, they reported an alarmingly large number of incidents of cartridge jams and accidental discharges. Nevertheless, in June 1875, the British army's Director of Artillery and Stores concluded “I think we need take no action at present, it is a subject which may be discussed at a future conference, with other points which may arise, when we get more experience with the arm”. That “more experience” was not long in arriving.

On 2nd November 1875, the British Resident in the Malay State of Perak was murdered by followers of a local Malay chief, Dato Maharajalela, and the alarmed British rushed several army units to the Malay Peninsula, including battalions which were just issued with the new Martini-Henry such as the 10th Regiment, 80th Regiment (Staffordshire Volunteers) and 3rd Regiment (The Buffs). By most accounts, the new weapon appears to have performed admirably, contributing greatly to the rapid destruction of the opposing Malay forces in Perak and Sungei Ujong. Lieutenant H B Eich of the Royal Engineers reports that troops advancing slowly up the Perak River were suddenly fired upon from a hastily- formed Malay stockade in the district of Belanja, near modern-day Parit. "The enemy fired two or three volleys, and in the meantime a gun and rocket tube were brought up and got into position. Two rounds of shell and one of case shot were then fired into the stockade, as also two rockets. Several rounds of the Martini-Henry were also fired, as the advanced guard advanced - the enemy retreated forthwith."

A Straits Times report from 8th December 1875 described an attack by the 10th Regiment on a strong Malay stockade at Paroi, near modern-day Seremban. "Behind the ridge, there was good cover and, as the 10th doubled up and lay down behind it, the enemy opened fire on them, which was returned with such a continuous roar of musketry from the Martini-Henry that it must have rather astonished the Malays."

However, someone else who must have been astonished during that particular battle was the commander of the 1st Batallion 10th Regiment Lieutenant Henry Charles Hinxman. In his despatches, Hinxman reported "I was much disappointed with the new (Martini-Henry) rifles. When they get hot, the extractor becomes jammed, and eight or ten of my men told me their rifles were useless, so I told them to take the wounded men's rifles."

The problem did not appear to have greatly affected the outcome of the battle. Hinxman reported: "The enemy were now in full retreat up the hill at E. I formed up my men and poured effective volleys into them. We now gave three cheers and burnt the village."

Nevertheless, Hinxman's report caused a great deal of consternation in London and the issue of the effectiveness of the Martini-Henry was even debated in Parliament following the experience of the war in the Malay States. The Hansard of 9th June 1876 reports that Sir Walter Barttelot called attention to the question of the Martini-Henry rifle, believing that it was not the best weapon with which to furnish our Army.  "He believed this weapon would absolutely fail if it came to the practical test of war. At Perak it was reported on unfavourably, and it was said, that after being fired a certain number of times it became too hot to hold, and the cartridges got jammed."

However, the Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, Lord Eustace Cecil, replied in the debate that "they had one report from Perak, which stated that after a certain time the weapon got hot and out of order, and that the men had to throw it away; but since then they had reports of the campaign, and not a single fault was found with the rifle. There had been a solitary report, and that was all."

The issue of the barrel heating up rapidly on high rates of fire was something that continued to plague the Martini-Henry and men in the field began to fashion their own hide leather grips to counteract the heat. This became standard issue in 1884. However, the overheating problem persisted - at the battle of Tofrek during the Sudan war in 1885, for example, as many as half of the British rifles jammed.

Nevertheless, the variants and improvements of the Martini-Henry saw service throughout the Empire for the remainder of the century until it was replaced by the bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle. It saw some of Britain's most desperate conflicts, including the Xhosa war in Southern Africa, the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Anglo-Sudan War and the Anglo-Zulu War. The power of the rifle’s legacy can even be seen today, as Martini-Henry rifles continue to be found in Taliban arms caches in Afghanistan. But it was in Malaya where this weapon of mass destruction found first blood.

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