Then The Guns Fell Silent

The Armistice match, held at Bisley Camp.

Words: Farhat Jah  & Blair Drummond

On the 11th November 1918, the armistice on the Western Front saw German, French, British and American guns fall silent. The war to end all wars was over. Sadly, though, not all the fighting was over:  British soldiers were sent to Russia to fight the communists, and also deployed to Afghanistan, while the Royal Navy supported the occupation of Istanbul until a particularly bloody campaign there ended in 1922.

When I saw the Armistice Commemorative match promoted by the NRA, I first thought not to take part.  Being of Turkish origin, most of my family were on what most readers would regard as ‘the other side’. Every male member of my mother’s family died at Gallipoli, and her grandfather only survived because he was a coal miner. Hence I thought I’d leave this particular shoot to the British, and their SMLEs.

 But a chance meeting on the range with past NRA CSR rep John Morgan-Hosey changed my mind: he emphasised that the shoot was a commemoration, not a celebration.  I looked into the history of the shoot, and learnt it was created by Lee Enfield Rifle Association (LERA) founder Paul Quilliam while he was at the ATRC in 1995. The match was shot regularly until 2003 when, in Paul’s words, ‘getting a range confirmed was a nightmare’. 

It lay idle until 2016 when John Morgan-Hosey mentioned to Mick Kelly (LERA’s guru on Enfield classes and score cards) that he’d like to stage it for the Armistice Centenary. The idea was floated with NRA shooting director Peter Cottrell who enthusiastically backed the idea.

The match would be restricted to rifles from 1914, and would use historically accurate targets hand- made by the NRA’s targetry team. Beginning with an early morning service on Bisley’s Century Range, it would end with a Vickers machine gun being fired alongside competitors finishing their day with a ‘mad minute’ of rapid fire.

Mick Kelly’s adamant view that ‘there are no winners in war’ changed my mind about entering. I too could pay homage to those who died while participating in an unusual and uncommon shooting event.

So at 8am on Saturday 11th November, 100 years since the Armistice, I and over 110 other shooters, some attired in replica British, French, German and American uniforms, many others sporting the service berets and medals from their past military service or that of their forebears, paid tribute to the fallen of all nations.

Silvery mist punctuated with soft sunlight drifted across the range as the Reverend Mark Chester, Chaplain to the Forces who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a reservist chaplain at Sandhurst, conducted a brief but poignant service of remembrance, standing next to a simple crucifix made from expended 20mm cannon casings presented to him by troops in Afghanistan. Readings were given by John Morgan-Hosey and past CSR rep Mark Bradley, while former Royal Marine bugler James Christopher sounded exquisite renditions of The Last Post and Reveille.

Then it was down to the business of shooting five matches, three in the morning and two after lunch, and the four assigned details went off to set up on the 200-yard firing point or to head to the butts. The vast majority of rifles used were SMLEs, with a French Lebel, a German Mauser, and a few P14s for company.

 

The first match in the sun-lit morning began with the order ‘fix bayonets’, then shooters got on their bellies, rested forearms on sandbags, and fired two sighters and 10 rounds in 30 second cycles at a Second Class Figure target. The second match, comprising 10 snap shots in four second cycles at a small Figure 4 target with a magazine change, was far more challenging, and began to separate the wheat from the chaff.

 

Even outstanding shots such as Paul Quilliam and William Tong found the going tough. I, for one, could barely see the target and despite shooting as carefully as I could, there were disappointingly few spotting disks on my target.

 

Match three required rapid fire of 10 rounds in 60 seconds at a convertible landscape target whose irregular geometric shapes deceived a lot of eyes – but not all!

 

With a number of LERA miscreants squadded next to each other, banter was soon forthcoming. As the day wore on, the solemnity of the morning service took a back seat and the comments became more amusing. As is usual with CSR and historic shooters, help and advice was always on hand: Paul Quilliam gave useful insights into changing wind conditions, while safety supervisors interpreted sighting shots. Then it was down to each shooter as no further coaching is permitted, and Will Tong winced in silence as he watched me group eight rounds beautifully – all two inches to the left of the target!

 

Our butt duties were extended by some lanes having to reshoot parts of their matches, a situation explained eloquently by butts’ supervisor Adam Chapman who bellowed: “Right. Everyone stand by until we find out what dramas have now befallen the firing point!” But these delays were forgotten as several of us hung on our target frames, almost weeping with laughter at Paul Quilliam’s acerbic running commentaries. 

 

Suddenly, the morning was done, and everyone reassembled to tuck into a delicious hot lunch of either chicken curry or Maconochie stew provided by the cooks at the ATSC. The buzz of animated conversation about shots taken and targets hit or missed, plus related laughter, rose and fell as forkfuls of food were eagerly consumed.

 

As the final two matches beckoned, the weather decided to give us all a small taste of what so many hundreds of thousands experienced all those years ago in the trenches. Driving rain and higher winds were to mark the afternoon – but no shooters were put off.

 

Huddled in their rain gear, and squinting through the rain or repeatedly wiping off glasses, shooters contested match four (two sighters and 10 rounds fired in 30 second cycles at an NRA Tin Hat target) before tackling the final match. This (match five) certainly raised the bar: fire two sighters and then 10 snaps in four second cycles from the kneeling or standing position at a small Figure 3 target – oh, and please change a magazine as well!

 

The formal shooting over, competitors plus families, friends and onlookers assembled to watch Colin Shorthouse from Fultons and NRA staffer Tom Chatfield set up a Vickers machinegun. Three ranks of shooters took it in turn to kneel and fire their mad minute into the sand backstop as the Vickers fired belt after belt. Being water-cooled, it simply and relentlessly kept on shooting with a steady dum-dum-dum-dum, only stopping when an empty ammo box was swapped for another box with its belt of 250 .303 rounds. No wonder many commented that it must have been hell to be on the other end of such a weapon, whether German or British.

 

When it came to my turn to join the mad minute, I found myself next to Mick Kelly and other LERA members. I laid out 25 rounds, loaded my SMLE, and when the whistle blew and the Vickers started up again, aimed, fired and worked the bolt as fast as I could. Exhilarating, to say the least!

By the time that was all over, the light was fading, rain was dripping off rifles, and the Vickers was surrounded by a mountain of brass (it fired around 1,500 rounds). Colin opened the water hose on the Vickers jacket, releasing a cloud of steam to swirl across the now-silent firing point, echoing the morning mist that had started the day.

 

There was just one more formality: the prize-giving, led by LERA chairman Cris Scott. Given the uncommon targetry, the classic rifles, and the weather, results were impressive, with some of the usual suspects winning medals, as well as some newcomers. Full results of the match can be found on the NRA website, but particular mention must go to the top three on aggregate (all five match scores added), who just happen to be LERA members!

 

NRA Gold Medal - Jim Gray, 180 (on count back)

NRA Silver Medal – Will Tong, 180

NRA Bronze Medal - Ian Dewey, 178

 

The day done, shooters mingled, chatted, and knocked back a welcome toast of Irish whiskey, courtesy of Mark Bradley, before packing up and heading home. With today’s guns as silent as those of 100 years ago, I thought back on my initial misgivings about participating – and was very glad that I had entered. Scores of NRA members, of differing backgrounds, political beliefs and nationalities, had come together to remember those from all sides who gave their all, and to hope that our respective futures are peaceful.