It has been proved that the claim that the Frontiersmen were the first British in action at the start of WW1 was yet another myth. Now we need to solve a few more mysteries and put an end to other myths that have surrounded this understandably highly-regarded tale of high adventure. Why did the Frontiersmen travel to Belgium to serve? Why did they call themselves the “British Colonial Horse” with B.C.H. on their shoulders? Who was the mysterious Baron Jolly?
We still need to know more about Baron Jolly, who was the key to the Manchester Troop crossing the Channel. We now have his clear photograph, seen here in the photo of the men in bivouac, to the right of Capt. Nowell (wearing the peaked cap). That does not tell us much more and we are not helped by the fact that there were two, apparently unrelated, Baron Jollys in the Belgian Army. The Legion’s Baron Jolly enjoyed a long relationship with the Legion and later even presented the Baron Jolly Cup illustrated here. Unfortunately that cup is missing. In 1914 he was living in Singelbeek, a village in Belgium. Perhaps he was the Belgian equivalent of the local Squire? He was certainly a man of some influence.
In September 1914 Lt.Col. Driscoll asked the War Office to land him with 2,000 men in Belgium to cut the German lines of communication, which were by then quite extended. Driscoll asked that 500 of these men should be equipped and mounted and the rest would get everything they needed from the German convoys. It was very much an idea of a type of guerrilla warfare some years in advance of War Office thought. It was not completely far-fetched, as most Frontiersmen were experienced men from the South African War where they had learned a lot from the Boers about living off the land. Other Frontiersmen had served in various active capacities in far-flung countries of the world. The doubt is whether he could have raised 2,000, or even 1,000, as Frontiersmen were daily enlisting in all types of regiments. Driscoll was asked to parade his men in London where they were inspected by General Bethune, who was impressed and reported that these were “toughs” suited for irregular warfare. Driscoll waited, expecting a call that never came. The idea was not Driscoll’s, but had been put to him as early as August 2nd by Baron Jolly wiring from his home in Singelbeek, Belgium. He asked Driscoll if he could raise a regiment to serve with the Belgian Army. The next day a reply came offering just under 1,000 men plus Driscoll.. The offer was refused by the Belgian authorities, but Driscoll told Baron Jolly that he could easily have raised 2,000. Why did neither the Belgians nor the British initially want to use the Frontiersmen? Baron Jolly thought that it was because the Frontiersmen had such diverse skills, they could be better used according to their individual abilities. One of Nowell’s men, Balliol Lamb, said that he went with the Manchester Troop because he was convinced that the authorities had no intention of using the Frontiersmen and he was keen to get into action.
The next question is, why did the Manchester Troop go as the British Colonial Horse rather than as Frontiersmen? It has been suggested that this was to do with the Foreign Enlistment Act., however that only applies when British subjects wish to go and fight against a friendly country. Germany was definitely not a friendly country. Around 1908 some of the London Command considered having an adventure by going to Venezuela to take part in a revolution there. At that time the Legion had a number of members in many countries in South America. They were warned by the Legion Executive that they could be prosecuted under the Foreign Enlistment Act and the idea fell through, 1 The probable reason for the Manchester Troop going not as Frontiersmen was the strong disapproval of Driscoll and maybe his ordering Frontiersmen not to go as a unit. He was desperate to keep as many of his Frontiersmen as possible together waiting for that call from the War Office to form a Frontiersmen unit. He had many men working in the Remounts, mainly outside Southampton. Driscoll was constantly badgering the War Office and suggesting ideas of how the Frontiersmen, with their peculiar specialist skills, could be utilised in various scenes of the conflict. The call from the War Office was not to come until early 1915, but Driscoll did not then know that.
An interesting point is that, because of the Frontiersmen uniform of stetsons and breeches, the Belgians read B.C.H. as “British Canadian Horse” and always called them the Canadians. There were some Canadian links; Balliol Lamb had returned from British Columbia in the late spring of 1914. He decided to out to Belgium with Nowell because he was convinced that the British authorities had no intention of using the Frontiersmen. Frontiersmen were by nature of too independent a spirit and the War Office may have doubted that they would have taken Orders from the Generals without question. To some extent that view was correct as was shown when Driscoll did take the Frontiersmen to East Africa in 1915 as the 25th Bn. of the Royal Fusiliers and they were a constant thorn in the side of the Staff officers. If Frontiersmen were spread thinly around many regiments, that would obviate any potential disciplinary problems.
These are the names of the Manchester Troop. We have a group photograph, taken in London before they left for Belgium although, other than Capt Nowell in the centre wearing the cap, there are few of the others we can at present identify positively:
Capt. Nowell: SQMS Thompson: Dick Reading: Ross Adams: Cyril J Allen: Leonard S Sanderson: William J (Pat) Cowan: Charles Critchlow: Bertram Davidson: John E Campbell: Edward J Dawson: Albert B Driver: Robin Everingham: Norman Guthrie: Frank Harrison: William D Hearn: Alexander Hepburn: William G Hobson: Thomas Balliol Lamb: David Lord: John MacNab: Alfred Nicholls: E Rees: Wallace Rennie (Roberts): Theodore Sandys-Wunsch: John W Weaver: Douglas Wood. Also with them was Dr. Percy McDougall, who could not get into the British Army in UK, and yet in Belgium he was taken on with alacrity by the RAMC.
A newspaper photograph of the Frontiersmen marching on foot to the train station in Manchester is further evidence that the story that they took their own horses is another Legion myth. They eventually arrived at Ostend where they were armed, equipped and mounted by Belgian GHQ and sent to the 3rd Belgian Lancers. Writing in 1929, the Adjutant of 3rd Belgian Lancers said that “The arrival of French, English and even Russian troops had been promised from the beginning, but up to date, with the exception of a few London buses seen at Bruges, we had not seen a single allied soldier. One day the Colonel’s secretary appeared in khaki to show and accustom us to the British uniform. Then the general situation was not very bright, but the soldiers’ moral[e] was still very good.”2 The first British troops they were going to see were to be wearing, not khaki, but Frontiersmen uniform. On October 13th “...looking very fine, dressed as cowboys, with big smasher hats, the ‘Canadians’ joined the regiment. They were the first Allies we had seen since two and a half months’ camping, retreat, fatigues, hunger and bravery. They raised no small sensation, and got an enthusiastic and sympathetic welcome. They formed the 5th platoon of the 3rd Squadron, under Commandant J Fontaine, who spoke fluent English. Their arrival was quite an event in the 3rd Lancers, and more emphatically and indisputably constituted for our men, already unused to war, a great moral comfort. These men called themselves Canadians, and wore on their shoulder straps the letters B.C.H. ‘British Canadian Horse’; the same letters were branded on their horses and their war cry was ‘B.C.H.’... All had cameras or small cinemas [sic]. They were enterprising lads, looking for adventures to write and scenes to photograph for the English press to which most were correspondents.”3
The English translation by Baron Jolly has a note that “actually the word was Colonial” attached to the mention of them being Canadians. It is possible that the men were happy to be thought of as Canadians in order not to upset Col. Driscoll any more than possible. Driscoll, although very defensive of all his Frontiersmen was known to be somewhat fearsome in private with junior ranks who stepped out of line.
But…did some Canadians actually come to Belgium and join up with the B.C.H. to make it also more logical for them to be known as Canadians?
With acknowledgments and thanks to the Legion’s official New Zealand historian, Bruce Fuller, for his recent researches.
1 Roger Pocock Chorus to Adventurers (The Bodley Head 1931) p 58-9.
2 From the account of story of the Manchester Troop in Belgium written in 1929 by Adjutant-Major Mersch of 3rd Belgian Lancers. Translation to English by Baron Jolly, from the archives of the official Legion of Frontiersmen (now Countess Mountbatten’s Own) ©
3 From the account of story of the Manchester Troop in Belgium written in 1929 by Adjutant-Major Mersch of 3rd Belgian Lancers. ©
Frontiersmen in Belgium 1914
and the “fog of war”.
Did a group of Canadians serve with the 3rd Belgian Lancers in 1914? This is a great example of the “fog of war” as there are conflicting stories. Neither the archives of 3rd Belgian Lancers nor any British accounts relating to the men of the Manchester Troop definitely referred to Canadians coming to serve with them. Certainly, we know they were called the “British Canadian Horse” or “Canadians” by many and some of them may well have worked in Canada or the American West, but the only mention of a group of Canadians actually serving came from Canada and Canadian newspapers. In a published letter by an un-named member of the Manchester Troop to a Frontiersmen magazine in October 1929, the correspondent when discussing the men with whom he had served said: There were also two ex-members of the Royal Canadian North West Mounted Police [sic], but he does not identify them. An intriguing report appeared in the Montreal Sun of December 1st 1914 explaining a story that had been circulating that a Canadian contingent had already been in the firing line. The full story was obtained from a man called Pelly, originally from Manitoba, who was working as a chauffeur ferrying reporters to and from the front line. When war was declared, forty Canadian members of the Legion of Frontiersmen arrived in England paying their own expenses. They joined up with British Legion members, but were advised to join the regular Canadian contingent. They were keen to get into action so the men:
“...who are real roughriders and scouts, took boat and train for Brussels and persuaded the harassed Belgians to attach them to the Third Belgian Cavalry [sic]. They immediately plunged into the thick of the fighting and proved their worth as scouts, and so sterling were the services they did in those days of retreat that individuals were pushed out and attached to other regiments with special duties and special rank. Pelly told me that one man had risen to a high position in the allies’ intelligence department. He was a French Canadian who spent a great part of his life in a logging camp.
“The losses of the little band have been heavy and he estimated that only fifteen of the forty were left, others being among the killed or missing. The only comrade he had seen during the last month was Albert Campbell, who hailed from Prince Edward Island. All through the campaign these men stuck to their picturesque stetson hat and blue shirt, and they were often mistaken by the Belgians and French as the first of the Canadian contingent.” 1
It is well-known that chauffeurs hear a lot more of what is going on than anyone else, but this story lacks corroboration from sources in Britain and Canada. A John E. Campbell is listed as one of the original Manchester Troop, but he came from Birmingham, England. There is one other clear reference to a group of Canadians serving in Belgium in 1914, this time in The Frontiersman, of December 1951, published in Hamilton Ontario. The first Squadron in Vancouver was commanded by a Capt. George Sloan.
“ Capt. Sloan retained command of the Vancouver Squadron until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. On war being declared he took most of the Vancouver Unit, some sixty members, to Victoria [B.C.] where they amalgamated with ‘Elliott’s Horse.’ [sic] The writer is informed that this unit was equipped by private funds and transportation paid to England. These men hoped they would be able to serve as a Unit, but on arrival in England the War Office would not permit this so the unit was disbanded, and its members drafted into other British Units. Some 40 members went to Belgium and were attached to the 3rd Belgium Cavalry [sic]. They wore the original L. of F. Uniform – Stetson, blue shirt, etc., which caused the rumour that the Canadians were serving with the Belgium Army. Only fifteen of these members survived.” 2
The article claimed that Capt. Sloan himself was then gazetted into the Scottish Horse and died of his wounds at Gallipoli. As to Elliot’s Horse, there is little evidence regarding what happened to these men after they arrived in London. On October 6th 1914, the Calgary Daily Herald reported that they had received a letter from London dated September 22nd to say that fifty men of the Legion of Frontiersmen had arrived in London and were believed to be the first Canadians to report to the War Office:
“…we intended to go to Valcartier camp, but on the journey across Canada we figured it out that to do so would mean going into training for some weeks so we came direct to London, and after some trouble managed to secure an interview with a member of Lord Kitchener’s staff. We were told that it would be necessary to go into training for some weeks, but we urged that we did not require training; that we were in good condition and could shoot straight and that we had the money in our pockets to buy our equipment and horses. As a last resort we asked if we might make our appeal in person to Lord Kitchener, and after some hesitation this was granted and we not only had the pleasure of seeing the great soldier in person but of having our services accepted. We are leaving for Southampton in a day or two.” 3
It was always a matter of principle with Frontiersmen that they considered themselves fully trained for any eventuality or type of warfare. This attitude was an irritation to the War Office, who wanted everything done strictly by the rules. What is not known is whether they were being sent to the Southampton area to assist at the Remounts Depot at Swaythling 4 or whether this was to be their port to cross the Channel. It is known that Capt. Nowell did send urgent messages back to England asking for volunteer reinforcements from the Frontiersmen, although not to Driscoll and London HQ.. Writing in the October 1929 issue of a Frontiersmen magazine, George Hazzledine, who actually served in East Africa as an officer in the 25th Battn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen), said:
“…Nowell speaks nicely of the Nottingham boys and asks for 35 of them…We were strictly forbidden to send our members across the Channel. Those who got there had to wangle it on their own. At the time I remember we were dreadfully afraid of the War Office and Foreign Enlistment pitfalls. We knew the Legion might be suppressed if it caused any difficulty for Lord Kitchener. We had done our whack well for the first 100,000, and we were concentrating on the Remount Depots, having 125 members also at Southampton.”
The Calgary Daily Herald expanded on the story of the Canadians on November 17th.5 They confirmed that these were indeed Elliot’s Horse, formed by R.T. Elliot, a Victoria B.C. lawyer, and financially supported by Victoria citizens. The claim was that the men, some eighty in number, were virtually stranded in London but were given rooms and board at the Union Jack Club at Waterloo. Elliot’s original idea was that the men should join the first Canadian contingent, but the Canadian militia said that mounted men were not needed in that contingent. It was also claimed that once in London the officers, elected by the men in traditional Frontiersmen manner, had abandoned them. Other than a mention in New Zealand of the men serving as the “British Columbia Horse”, there the trail of Elliot’s Horse has gone cold. Did a group of Canadians join up with the B.C.H. In the 3rd Belgian Lancers? If they did it is strange to say the least that there is no mention of them in the accounts that came from the 3rd Belgian Lancers. All we can do is to put this down as an interesting story but one that is, as yet, far from proven.
In his letter mentioned in the first paragraph, the un-named correspondent wrote:
“What a Troop! The O.C., Captain Nowell, had served in the South African War at 19 and was taken prisoner then. There was Captain Max Hapenworth, D.S.O., and the Sergeant Major, Hepburn, who had also served in South Africa, and, not least, ‘Big Bill Hearn, six-foot-four and sixteen stone odd. He had come over with the Springboks in 1913 and intended to settle down in England to learn engineering, but the war called him as it had done before. He wore the Zulu Rising medal.” 6
No record has so far been found of a Hapenworth or any similar name winning a D.S.O. The photo from the Daily Mirror shown on this page was taken on the steps of the Ostend Kursaal Hospital. It shows ‘Big Bill’ Hearn wearing a Frontiersmen tunic with shoulder chains. On the other side of the wounded Belgian is Pat Cowan wearing the traditional Frontiersmen working kit of loose shirt, neckerchief and riding breeches. Unfortunately, this is the best representation we can produce of a newspaper page. Although the Frontiersmen liked to ensure that photos appeared in British newspapers showing them in their customary Stetsons and breeches, this was not always the most sensible uniform to wear under battle conditions. In the other photograph with this page, which shows them dug in, they are better attired for the cold and wet, mainly in balaclavas and overcoats.
“After two and a half months in the field, continuously confronted with an unstoppable superior war machine, the [Belgian] men were highly demoralized. Since the fall of Antwerp they had been marching for days with the enemy on their heels. Perhaps more importantly, the lack of a clear, made-in-Belgium strategic goal had been lost which weighed heavily on the morale of the rank and file.
“Desertions during the retreat had been common… As the army made its withdrawal through Flemish speaking territory there were proportionally more Flemish boys of military age being rounded up by the gendarmerie in the process. In turn these boys were more familiar with the land and could easily escape or make it across the border into neutral Holland.”7
It is easy to see how the sight of a few Frontiersmen in their Stetsons would have been great for the morale of the Belgian troops. They had been ever hoping to see some British soldiers giving them vital support, so the word must have spread like wildfire that the “Canadians” had arrived to help them. This would have been a great boost to these young conscripts and to others in the demoralized Belgian army. It is logical that they would have been encouraged to be photographed in uniform as well. It is certain that reports of their presence would have got back to the Germans, who would have been puzzled about from where these “Canadians” had suddenly arrived. Although their numbers were so few, it explains why the Belgians never forgot the Legion of Frontiersmen and for many years afterwards made the Legion most welcome and treated them with honour. Those who served with the 3rd Belgian Lancers were awarded the Medaille d’Yser – a very rare medal to be seen alongside First War medals on the chests of British veterans. Were any Canadians included among the recipients? Without clear evidence it is impossible to claim this as fact. Perhaps some day a group of such medals awarded to a Canadian will turn up. Until such clear evidence surfaces we can only say that this an interesting one of many stories about the Frontiersmen and the 3rd Belgian Lancers, but it remains “not proven” and the truth may well have been lost in the “fog of war”.
Canadian newspaper research by Will Shandro, M.Ed.; Canadian historian of the early years of the Legion of Frontiersmen in Canada. Frontiersmen magazine research by Bruce Fuller, official New Zealand historian.
1 Montreal Star, December 1st 1914, re-printed in Edmonton Daily Bulletin, December 2nd 1914.
2 The Frontiersman, Hamilton, Ontario, December 1951
3 Calgary Daily Herald, October 6th 1914.
4 See: www.frontiersmenhistorian.info/remount.htm
5 Calgary Daily Herald, November 17th 1914.
6 The British Imperial Frontier Man, October 1929
7 Paul Van Pul: In Flanders Flooded Fields: Before Ypres there was Yser, [Pen & Sword 2006] 71.
“We shall not forget their help.”
“Until the middle of November the whole available resources of Germany in the Flanders area were to be flung in wave after wave upon the Allied line...a thin line of Allied of Allied troops extended from Nieuport through Dixmude, Bixschoote, round the east side of Ypres, to La Bassée and Arras... Thus the Belgian infantry held the line of the Yser from the sea to Dixmude, where there was a force of French marines. Mixed French and Belgian cavalry and the 89th French territorial division continued the line between the Yser and Houthulst Forest...” 1
“A senior officer of the Lancers said ‘We shall not forget their help and the moral uplift they brought us during the most critical and tragic months at the beginning of the war, nor the material benefits which were so valuable to us when supply lines were so precarious.’” 2
The official booklet of the 3rd Belgian Lancers gave the above credit to the Frontiersmen of the Manchester Troop. An additional and often overlooked benefit of these men serving with the Belgians as the British Colonial Horse was the support they encouraged from England, as a number of the men, some of who had worked as journalists, wrote home arousing interest and requesting support for the men fighting to save Belgium from invasion:
“In a very short time some developed into temporary war correspondents. Articles and photographs were sent regularly to the British Press, and at the same time they had mobilised the ladies of the B.C.H. families on the other side of the Channel. Result – not only the Squadron, but the whole Regiment benefited from the receipt of innumerable parcels. Woollies, cigarettes and many bother goodies brought a little well-being to our men who had been deprived of comfort at the beginning of the first winter of the war.” 3
“The cavalrymen of 3rd Squadron were astonished at the arrival in their quarters at ‘Groene Poorte’ farm close to Pervyse of some large cheerful horsemen, gaitered, spurred, speaking English and led by a captain. They wore felt hats like the Canadian Mounted Police and cartridge belts with five pockets across their chests. The letters B.C.H. appeared on their epaulettes. They had come from Ostend where they had disembarked 10 days earlier, 6th October. The Belgian G.O.C. had provided them with armaments and horses. They could have been taken for Canadians at first because of their hats. Commandant J. Fontaine greeted them in their language and installed them as his 6th Platoon. It was the ‘British Colonial Horse.’ These British came from the Legion of Frontiersmen, Manchester Squadron, a body of volunteers founded in 1904 ‘to provide a body of men to serve their country with thousands of eyes keeping sleepless watch throughout the world.’ 4
As these were true and experienced Frontiersmen, they were able to show the Belgian troops how to make the best of the conditions and organise shelters and quarters in abandoned villages with some modicum of comfort. Very soon they had their first real fight. On 18th October the 3rd Lancers were ordered to occupy St. Pierre-Capelle and Leke. They were reinforced by a company of cyclists, some artillery and an armoured car. The Frontiersmen occupied ditches to the west of the road to Slype. The cyclists suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Germans who were better armed. The order came for the Lancers to remount and retreat. The Belgians, who had already experienced much fighting, watched the Frontiersmen with great interest, but these men had seen considerable action before in the wars in South Africa and what was then known as Zululand. “Their behaviour was plendid”.
”That part of the country is a flat, open, low-lying grazing land, divided in plots by ditches, full of water, with soft and muddy banks. Very few trees, some scattered farmhouses, and a few houses round a church were all the cover to be found. Such is the ground in which the retreat was to take place. It began at a trot, but soon, to jump the ditches, they passed at a canter; the horses also were made uneasy by the bullets and shells and also by the rushes of some runaway led horses...
“On reaching Spermalie, the first cover after St. Pierre-Capelle, and towards which there was luckily only one road, about one platoon of mounted men was left. These, by placing their horses across the road, stopped and caught the runaway horses. Gradually the men rolled up on foot and after half an hour the Regiment was remounted and reformed.
“The Canadians [sic] were the first to fall in. Then, as anxiety was seen on every face, they started to sing a hymn. This had a very comforting and calming effect among our men. Platoons and squadrons reformed, and the regiment pursued its retreat towards the bridge of Schoorbakke, by two and at a walk. General Baix, who had been somewhat anxious, congratulated now the Colonel for his coolness and the good order of the retreat.
“The cyclists had lost half their men and all their bikes; the 3rd Lancers had 4 killed and 8 wounded, of which 3 were Canadians [sic]. October 18th, the day on which the fight was fought against a much more numerous enemy, marks the beginning of the battle of the Yser.” 5
After this, the trench warfare began and the Frontiersmen took their fair share. In the low-lying ground, the trenches were always water-logged. They were posted to outpost duties in places such as Ramscapelle, Freme Violette and Ferme Rykenhoek where they showed discipline and great spirit. The Belgians had contrived to open the locks and flood the area shown on the map, which was into territory that the Germans had already occupied. Although the flooding of the area made life difficult for the defending Belgians, it played a major part in thwarting the much better armed Germans, even though they were superior in numbers, from carrying out their plans for a rapid advance through Belgium.
“When on 3 November 1914 large tracts of land had disappeared under water the front stabilized between the North Sea and Dixmude. But it had all come at a tremendous high price for King Albert’s small conscript army: almost one third of the infantrymen that had gone into battle two weeks earlier were now killed, wounded or missing.” 6
It seems that some of the Frontiersmen had cine cameras and films of the action were shown in British cinemas. It has so far been impossible to trace surviving film, although it is always possible that some will be discovered. They also sent articles and photographs to the London newspapers such as the Daily Sketch, Mirror, Graphic and Chronicle. These articles did much to encourage support, both moral and practical, for the Belgians among British people. Eventually the order came to disband the B.C.H. Whether this order came from the Belgians or British High Command is not known, but the men were transferred to various units of the British army. Captain Nowell who, it is believed, then received a commission in the Royal Naval Division, was awarded the Cross of Chevalier de la Couronne. It seems that, somewhat surprisingly, Nowell did manage to get home for a short while as a syndicated report on 5th November in some British provincial newspapers reported an interview with him. He said that it had only taken him seven hours to get from the battlefield to England (it might well take longer today!).
“When jumping one ditch his horse fell and the saddle was turned. Fully four thousand Germans were firing at them from not more than 80 yards range, and whilst he was readjusting the saddle bullets fell all around him but he got away without a scratch.
“Captain Nowell adds that there are piles of [German] dead lying in front of the Belgian lines on the Yser. Five hundred prisoners were taken, mostly young recruits, and he had never seen a more miserable and dispirited lot of soldiers.” 7
The Germans did indeed lose many men at the Battle of the Yser, far more than they had anticipated as they had expected with their great numbers and superior armaments to march though easily. It is believed that T. Balliol Lamb also joined the Royal Naval Division where he lost an eye on active service. As Lamb had worked for years in British Columbia, he may well have had enough of a Canadian accent to further encourage the idea that the B.C.H, were Canadians. .King Albert of the Belgians personally visited the Frontiersmen just before Christmas 1914. “He told them that he had often heard of them, and, because he was much touched that a troop of gallant English sportsmen should have rushed overseas to join his army, he had made a point of coming to talk to them.” 8 He gave instructions that, along with every Belgian soldier, they should receive the 1914 Christmas box of chocolates bound in the Belgian colours. RQMS Thompson still held that box untouched as late as 1934. The Frontiersmen were also awarded the Medal of the Yser. We have not been able to discover any unit of British military to which this was awarded, so the Medal of the Yser alongside the 1914 Star worn by those Frontiersmen must have been a very rare medal combination indeed.
Richard Reading had transferred from 3rd Belgian Lancers to the Corps de Mitrailleurs, the lightly armoured cars that fought bravely against the heavily armoured Germans. In civilian life Reading had been the editor of the Sporting Chronicle, but was to become known as the man who would not die. He was recognised in October at an estaminet near Furnes by Sir William Beach Thomas, an eminent war correspondent. Reading told Beach Thomas that his ambition was to capture as a souvenir the lance and helmet of one of the German Uhlans. Beach wrote up the story of this well-known sporting editor serving as a corporal in the Belgian army and of his ambition. The story was re-printed in Dutch newspapers and came to the attention of the Germans who set a trap for Reading with a solitary Uhlan as a decoy. Reading fell into the trap and thought he was on the point of making his capture when he became the target for rifle and machine gun fire. His armoured car made to escape, thinking him mortally wounded, but Reading, who had received 20 bullet wounds, clung on to the back of the armoured car and escaped, although both legs were badly broken. The war was ended for Reading and he was invalided to his home city of Manchester where he lay in the Red Cross Hospital at Worsley Hall for two years. The King of the Belgians heard of Reading’s bravery and sent a special deputation to the hospital to award him the medal of the Chevalier of the Order of Leopold. Even then, Reading’s adventures were not over and it was decided that it would be good for his health to go and live in Australia. He sailed on the Mongolia, but the ship was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean and Reading survived eight hours in the water with his legs still in splints, just managing to keep afloat. He died in Australia and King Albert awarded his widow a pension. He invited her to the commemorations in Brussels in July 1930 where she was accompanied by RQMS Thompson and “Pat” Cowan and treated as a privileged guest. 9
Another well-known journalist, Sir Basil Clarke, wrote an obituary of the “man who would not die”, recalling first meeting Reading at the Manchester Press Club when Reading was an editor and Clarke a cub reporter. Clarke also recalled meeting Reading in Belgium. Reading much preferred German rifles in preference to the Belgian ones. “’The only snag’, he told me, ‘is that I have to bag a German every few days to get ammunition for it’”. The lieutenant in charge of the armoured car told Clarke in halting English how Reading made war:
“We ride in our machine seeking German patrols, and Corporal Richard is very polite. ‘Yes, my lieutenant; no, my lieutenant’. But we sight an enemy patrol – he forgets the corporal. He prods me in the back and say: ‘Now, lieutenant, go to it.’ Buck up, lieutenant, and we will bag the lot.’ And he prod me in the back all the time. I say ‘load the mitrailleuse, corporal!’ He load and then he fire it too if I am not quick. Only when I take it from him will he give me the mitrailleuse and take to his German rifle. And he is not content to stop in the car. He like to leap into the road and fire where he is free to move. He even chase the Germans on foot like a dog after the hares. One day he throw down his rifle and chase two Germans across the beet field. For 30 minutes I see no corporal. I think him dead. Then he come back leading a German prisoner.” 10
Reading told Clarke that the Germans had separated so he followed one into a little estaminet where the German was hiding under a table. Reading dug him out, took his rifle and revolver, told him he was his prisoner – and then bought the German a drink.
There were so many such stories told of these great Manchester Frontiersmen. It is no wonder that the Frontiersmen were always held in high honour by the Belgians and even today, Frontiersmen in dress uniform still proudly wear the small pennant of the 3rd Belgian Lancers suspended from the button of their right breast pocket.
1 Hammerton, Sir J.A. (ed.) A Popular History of the Great War, Volume 1.[The Fleetway House n.d. (193?) 481
2 A brief account of the service of the Frontiersmen in the official booklet of 3rd Belgian Lancers n.d. (197?). Translation by Mrs Frances Gallagher, wife of the late Legion Major Jack Gallagher B.E.M. An interesting and little-known fact is that Frances Gallagher was official interpreter to General de Gaulle when he was in London during 1939-45 War.
3 A brief account of the service of the Frontiersmen in the official booklet of 3rd Belgian Lancers n.d. (197?).
4 A brief account of the service of the Frontiersmen in the official booklet of 3rd Belgian Lancers n.d. (197?).
5 The British Imperial Frontier Man, February 1930, 21.
6 Paul Van Pul, In Flanders Flooded Fields: before Ypres there was Yser. [Pen & Sword 2006] 228. A very interesting book describing how a few Belgians contrived to flood the Yser basin and hold up the might of the German army.
7 Dundee Courier, 5th November 1914, page 3. “Piles of Dead in Front of Belgian Lines.”
8 Yorkshire Evening Post, 22nd February 1934. “A Leeds Memory of King Albert”.
9 Yorkshire Evening Post, 22nd February 1934. “A Leeds Memory of King Albert”.
10 The Daily News and Westminster Gazette, “The Man Who Would Not Die”, 17th September 1929, re-printed in The British Imperial Frontier Man, October 1929, 112/3.
© Copyright 2002-2014 Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.