In a recent post, we discussed the history of this forgotten knife–a relic of Boer War. Now take a closer look at this knife.
The captivating inscription to the English sportsman’s knife is simple: “Boer War 1899-1902”. The pattern is a horseman’s knife, so named because of the fold-out hoof-pick. If it didn’t have this hoof pick, a knife in the same pattern would be called a sportsman’s knife. The handles are finely checkered horn. The bar shield is engraved with the Boer War notation.
This knife is 5 inches long, strong and hefty. This knife was designed as a tool for use, and as such most horseman’s knives are found well used, one in mint condition is a rarity. On the practical side, it had a bail for attaching a lanyard and an etched spear-point master blade, as well as a smaller pen blade. Also, there is a long hook blade in the shape of a glove hook, but much larger, likely designed for buttoning heavy canvas together. The hoof pick opens and reveals a curved spot on the back spring with a roughed spot on the inside of the hook. This space was designed for assisting a grip for tightening rope or leather by putting the rope into the groove and depressing the hoof pick on it. The extended liner forms a functional screwdriver. The grooved bolsters provide gimping for a grip as well as dressing up the knife. On the back spring are a cork screw, a threaded awl and a punch, all useful for a horse soldier in the field. Under the handles are a pick and tweezers. This Taylor’s Eyewitness horseman’s knife is a basic, functional, well-built tool in exceptional condition, made at a time when Sheffield cutlery was the finest in the world.
Until this year, the knife had resided in one of the largest horseman’s/sportsman’s knife collections ever assembled in its country of origin, England. Ownership transferred, and another collector was able to enjoy what this knife represents.
We have few facts, just a knife and an inscription that says so little, but at the same time, it sparks conjecture. Most of the knife’s story is unknown. We have pieces of it, and what remains untold is one the romances of knife collecting. We can imagine the story and dig for the facts, and as we learn more, those facts in turn alter the imagined story. As a cutlery historian, we can only state facts. As a knife collector, we can easily let our imagination wrap a story around those facts.
Was the knife carried in the war? Not likely considering the condition. Was it presented to a returning veteran, passed down through the family until obtained by a collector? We don’t know. Is it a forgotten relic of a nearly forgotten war? Absolutely.
The Boer war is not one of the wars we see once a week on the History Channel. But the impact? How did such a small little war affect the world as we know it?
The roaming bands of Boer fighters called their groups Commandos. And during World War II, when the British special-ops groups were formed, they did so with an officer corps that remembered the effectiveness of the Boer Commando units. The name the British took for their raiders, the legendary British Commandos.
If you collect military knives such as the Cattaraugus 225Q, or enjoy the smooth lines of the Sykes-Fairbain dagger, both styles were termed Commando Knives. The Boer War was the origin of that name.
The young reporter who escaped would later show bravery and tenacity standing firm against Adolf Hitler in Europe—his name was Winston Churchill. The camps in which the families were herded, and where 25,000 civilians died, added a new word to modern war vocabulary. Those British camps were the first to be known as concentration camps.
The Indian stretcher bearer who saw firsthand the effect of violence would later become the proponent of non-violent rebellion, and would eventually lead his country to independence from England. His name, Mohandas K. Gandhi—Mahatma Gandhi. And later Martin Luther King would follow Gandhi’s example of non-violent protest in the struggle for civil rights.
As for Taylor’s Eyewitness knives? The name is still in use today on household knives and still made in Sheffield. In 1906, the company would employee 1,000 workers. The war to decimate the cutlers of Sheffield would not begin for eight more years. In 1919, the year following World War I, Taylor’s had 500 workers.
As for the hero commander of the Mafeking garrison, the youngest colonel in the British Army at the time realized that one of the reasons that the Boers had been so able to resist the British troops was their early familiarity with living in the outdoors, and with firearms and hunting. He wrote an instruction manual for soldiers on how to use those Boer inspired outdoor skills to do effective reconnaissance against an enemy. But to his surprise, his book became a best seller among young men as well. His name was Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, later simply known as Lord Baden-Powell. He retired a lieutenant general and continued his concept of a Cadet Corps. He named his organization to give British youngsters advanced outdoor training, The Boy Scouts. Today, there are over 30-million Scouts worldwide.
In 1909, an American publisher, W. D. Boyce, became disoriented in the fog while visiting London and was surprised when a uniformed youngster appeared and offered to help him find his way. When Boyce offered a tip, the young man refused, explaining that he was a Boy Scout and was simply doing his good deed for the day. Boyce was so impressed with that young British Boy Scout, he decided to bring the movement to the United States, and the Boy Scouts of America was born.
It is likely that Boy Scout knife collectors are one of these largest groups of knife collectors, and that, too, has it’s roots in a three-year war in which farmers seeking independence fought the gold-seeking British empire to a near standstill.
By J. Bruce Voyles