"Gordon, the greatest of modern Frontiersmen, had on his signet ring three words engraved. Nobody could read the words, they were not in English; but when in China he led twenty thousand men, and thrashed fifteen hundred thousand, and when later, in the Soudan, he held Khartoum, and seemed to fight with more than human power, men said that the ring was a talisman, and worked magic, or that he was a saint performing miracles. He was neither saint nor magician, but only hero, and the words upon the ring remain for us, his message to his followers who hold the outposts of the Empire- "God Guard Thee," charged on the Union Jack. That is the symbol of the Legion of Frontiersmen, the device for arms, seal and flag, the sign of our brotherhood."
Coupling images of imperial heroism with magic rings and mystical inscriptions, Roger Pocock was at his best as a professional storyteller in this passage describing the origins of the motto of the Legion of Frontiersmen: God Guard Thee. It was in this heroic light that the motto became a symbol of inspiration, fraternity, and loyalty to the many thousands who served in the Legion since its inception in 1905. Around camp fires and lodge rooms over the years, the origins of the Legion's motto and the significance of Gordon's ring were no doubt the subject of much speculation, storytelling and elaboration. Yet it has been a story difficult to verify. No references to General Gordon's "magic ring" are found amongst the biographical writings on the soldier. A more concrete explanation for the origins of General Gordon's magic ring can be found in the early history of the Legion. This story revolves around the mercurial character of one of the founders of the Frontiersmen, Arthur Owen Vaughan. Although better documented, it is just as colorful a tale as that told by Roger Pocock.
Like other founding members of the Legion, Arthur Owen Vaughan was an adventurer who used several names through his life. He was not known as A.O. Vaughan from his birth in Southport in 1863, but it was the name he eventually but permanently adopted and by which he came to be one of the Frontiersmen. An orphan leaving Britain at the age of fifteen, Vaughan had led an exciting and difficult life, seeking out adventure on the frontier in the Americas and South Africa. A skilled outdoorsman, crack shot and herdsman, he served briefly in the Royal Dragoons, periodically worked as a mercenary in the Americas and earned distinction for his bravery as an irregular during the South African War. Using the pen-name Owen Rhoscomyl, he was also an intensely patriotic if unconventional Welshman who wrote popular short stories, adventure novels and romances as well as essays, histories, and pageants about his beloved Wales. Through his writing and nationalist activities, he envisioned the Welsh as a distinct, proud and martial people bound by ties of loyalty to the British Crown and Empire.
Vaughan was amongst those few in London who responded to Roger Pocock's advertisement of 1905, calling frontiersmen across the world to join a fraternal legion devoted to patriotic service to the British Empire. Traveling from his home in Wales and staying for extended periods in London, Vaughan would often flop at the Legion's headquarters and wrote letters using the Legion's stationery. That small office on Adam Street was described by Roger Pocock as often crowded with visitors, "soldiers on the bed, seamen perched on the furniture, cowboys squatting on one heel". Gathered around a tiny fireplace, this motley collection of global adventurers would swap experiences, information and tall tales throughout the night. Vaughan certainly enjoyed telling stories, Pocock describing him as having "a very Welsh sense of the Romantic and a strong desire to appear mysterious." Mostly likely, it was during one of these bull sessions that Vaughan displayed his gold signet ring and told the story that inspired the motto of the Legion of Frontiersmen.
We can only imagine what claims Vaughan may have made to his fellow Frontiersmen but here is what can be documented about the ring. The ring had indeed once belonged to General Charles Gordon of Khartoum fame. It was the gift of an enthusiastic and eccentric supporter, Mrs. Elizabeth Anne Surtees-Allnatt. From a family with distant claims to the gentry, Surtees-Allnatt had led an eventful life, had been widowed twice and had amassed a good amount of wealth in the process. An amateur novelist and pamphleteer, her works reflect her passion for history, Christian evangelicalism and charity work on behalf of soldiers. She was inspired by Gordon's martial mysticism and corresponded with him frequently, peppering him with expensive religious gifts while he was traveling in Mauritius, Palestine and Syria. Gordon himself did not always appreciate the attention and came to regard her frequent letters as a nuisance, but Surtees-Allnatt treasured their correspondence, a portion of which she later published. As the forces of the Madhi surrounded the general in Khartoum, she became a notable public advocate for Gordon's cause. When the government hesitated to relieve him in 1884, Surtees Allnatt began a public subscription to raise a ransom and a private company of volunteers to rescue him. Gordon was in no position to appreciate the irony that among the few communications smuggled to him in the besieged city was a photographed letter from his persistent if not wholly welcome admirer. Before his departure for Khartoum, Gordon sent many of his possessions back to a sister, including various gifts from Mrs. Surtees-Allnatt. Mrs. Surtees-Allnatt's gifts were then returned to her after Gordon's death, including a ring, a Bible and a prayer book. She later received a cloak Gordon had possessed at the time of his death and one of his chairs. Mrs. Surtees-Allnatt remained a priestess of the Gordon cult, supporting memorial projects and anti-slavery organizations, collecting and distributing portraits of the hero, and volunteering at soldier's welfare charities in her later life. On occasion, she would lend relics associated with the martyred general to worthy organizations and other devotees.
In 1888, seventy year old Elizabeth Surtees-Allnatt met Vaughan- then known by the name Robert Milne. At that time, the twenty five year old Vaughan was a dashing private in the that "crackest of crack regiments," the Royal Dragoons. Before his enlistment, Vaughan had tried his luck as a cowboy, prospector and frontiersman in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Although adventurous, it was an impoverished existence and he had returned to Britain after seven hard years on the American frontier. An experienced outdoorsman, rider, and scout, he had hoped that a stint in the Royal Dragoons would provide him with more opportunity and a livelihood. He impressed his recruiters and officers with his skill but service in an elite regiment like the dragoons was intended for the social upper crust and the cost of equipment and maintenance were great. The expenses associated with such service beggared the largely independent adventurer. When they met, Mrs. Surtees-Allnatt instantly took the charming and desperate young soldier under her wing, encouraging his religious faith, paying his debts, bolstering his military career and supporting his intellectual, literary and historical interests. Of the nature of the relationship, Vaughan would explain, " If she were a little younger I know what I should try & quickly. Religion however is at the bottom of her every action, nay, almost her every thought..." Impressed by his intelligence and charm, Surttees-Allnatt came to regard her protégé as the spiritual incarnation of Gordon himself.
Surtees-Allnatt bestowed upon Vaughan a variety of gifts associated with or once owned by the martyr of Khartoum. Among them was a Bible, given upon Vaughan's confirmation at Aldershot Garrison Church in 1889. He was also given a prayer book, cloak, an autograph and a portrait of the hero that had been given to Surtees-Allnatt by the Gordon family. The most highly prized gift, however, was Gordon's ring. In a letter to his sister, Vaughan described the ring as a "green stone set in gold" with an inscription "the Lord be with you" in Greek characters. "Although your brother is only a common soldier," he wrote "he has something in Gordon’s ring which many of the chiefest in the land would give great sums to possess." After leaving the military in 1890, Vaughan traveled with the widow to homes in Hereford and Conwy, Wales. During the 1890s, Vaughan resided in Conwy under the assumed name of "Schofield" and published his first historical adventure novels under the pen name Owen Rhoscomyl. Evidence suggests that he may have also been engaged in periodic mercenary ventures in South and Central America. The nature of the relationship between the widow and the adventurer is unclear at this time and the reason for the eventual severing of their ties is uncertain. Whatever the explanation, Vaughan kept the ring and other gifts associated with Gordon and, throughout the vagaries of his later life, he remained devoted to these icons as objects of a personal cult of hero worship.
With portrait, Bible and other items safely stowed away, Vaughan arrived with the ring in South Africa shortly after hostilities began in 1899. There, Vaughan adopted his now permanent name and joined up with irregular units of scouts, serving as a sergeant in Rimington's Guides and Damant's Horse before being commissioned as a Captain in the Canadian Scouts. Vaughan was at the forefront of the frontier war in South Africa, often serving behind enemy lines with small bands of men. He was known for his service under cavalry generals Michael Rimington and Edward "Curly" Hutton, generally regarded as the father of military intelligence. Earning clasps for seven battles and fighting throughout the war, Vaughan had a reputation for his ferocity, skill and almost suicidal daring. To distinguish themselves from the regular army, the men of Rimington's Guides wore a band of cheetah fur about their hats. In testament to his bravery, only Vaughan was permitted to wear the claw of the beast. With his commanding officers effusive in their praise, he was mentioned in dispatches and received the Distinguished Conduct Medal in 1901.
In facing these dangers, the protective blessing of the inscription on Gordon's ring may have been a source of reassurance to Vaughan. In one instance, the ring is said to have directly saved its wearer. In a difficult skirmish on the approach to Bloemfontein in the spring of 1900, Vaughan was wounded in the neck but continued to fight on. Eventually overcome by the loss of blood, his unconscious body was only discovered amidst the dead because a comrade recognized the ring on his hand. It is easy to see how the ring's heroic association with Gordon blended with tales of Vaughan's own reckless bravery to create the "magic" qualities of the ring described by Pocock. In addition to Vaughan himself, another early member of the Legion could have testified to the miraculous qualities of the ring. Walter Kirton, who earned notoriety as the first British soldier to enter besieged Johannesburg in 1900, served as a corporal under Vaughan's command and had fought by his side. In what was likely the basis for both Vaughan's and Kirton's Distinguished Conduct Medals in 1901, Vaughan re-crossed a river in the face of a pursuing enemy to rescue Kirton, who appears to have been pinned beneath his dead mount. Roger Pocock recounted how after the war, Vaughn ran into a former comrade on the streets of London. He cryptically asked the man, "Do you remember the river?" When the man - unidentified in the story but almost assuredly Kirton - answered that it was on the river that Vaughan had saved his life, Vaughan replied "I claim it now" and immediately recruited him for the Legion.¹
After the war, the ring and the other objects associated with Gordon followed their owner to a series of residences across Wales. Having returned to Britain with a Boer war bride, Catherine Louisa Geere, Vaughan was determined to earn a living in Wales as a writer, historian and public figure. Life was often precarious and his shrine to Gordon, complete with the large and unwieldy portrait, must have been the dominant presence in what were often sparsely furnished and poorly maintained cottages in the Welsh countryside. Continuing to publish and pursue his literary career, Vaughan's fortunes improved when he was selected to be the writer of the National Pageant of Wales, an open-air historical extravaganza to be held in Cardiff in 1909. The shrine to Gordon duly accompanied Vaughan's growing family to a new suburban house in Dinas Powys. Vaughan's daughter Olwen would later recall how Gordon's portrait glowered down upon the family home, frightening the four young children and family pet.
Vaughan's formal role as a leader in the Legion was far shorter lived than his influence. Amongst the first twenty five members to enlist, Rhoscomyl claimed in a letter to a friend to have had his "hand on the tiller" of the organization from the beginning and to have effectively "set the Legion of Frontiersmen going." Among his correspondence is a detailed description of how the Legion was organized and developed. From Roger Pocock's diaries, it is clear that he worked closely if contentiously with the organization's founder and that he was an important organizing force and personality in the early days of the Legion's formation. Attracting willful, independent and often eccentric characters like Vaughan himself, the early Legion was racked by personality conflict. Thus, Vaughan "had chucked" the leadership by the spring of 1906 and the family has preserved no memory of his role in the organization. Yet, it is clear that Vaughan continued to associate with the Legion, contributing essays and commentary on scouting for its 1909 Frontiersman's Pocket-Book, a manual of survival skills and guerilla warfare.
An experienced mercenary and an acknowledged expert on scouting, Vaughan may very well have been involved with the "Legion invisible," described by Roger Pocock as a secret band of members engaged in counter-espionage and spy hunting during the early years of the Legion. Romantically, family lore identifies Vaughan as a spy-hunter before the war. Incredibly, evidence suggests Vaughan played a role in protecting King George V during his visit to the riot torn coal valleys of South Wales in 1912. Although never publishing on the subject himself, Rhoscomyl was clearly a believer in the German invasion scare and the spy mania then being fanned by "scaremongers" in the Edwardian popular press. Citing personal connections with the "secret service," Vaughan expressed his absolute certainty of the coming war and urged his friends to prepare themselves. The Legion of Frontiersmen were quite convinced of this threat and were intimately involved in efforts to fight it. Family lore also suggests Vaughan may have been connected to the Frontiersmen's famous foiling of the anarchist assassination of the king of Portugal in 1909. The Portuguese envoy was so impressed with the Legion's service on that occasion that he spoke to King Edward VII, who in gratitude awarded the Legion with a subsidy. As concerns over the likelihood of a German invasion of England mounted after 1909, the Legion became involved in efforts to train and organize resistance in the event of Britain's military occupation. According to family memory, Vaughan was actively preparing for just such an insurgency. Vaughan's son would later recount how, after his father's death in 1919, mysterious men arrived at the house in a car to collect plans and maps prepared by his father, detailing a hypothetical uprising launched from the Welsh countryside against a German-occupied western England.
When war with Germany was declared in 1914, Vaughan threw himself into the effort with characteristic zeal and launched a recruitment campaign specifically extolling Welsh patriotism and nationhood. At astonishing speed, he almost single-handedly raised the Regiment of Welsh Horse in Cardiff. To the dismay of many, he was denied command of this regiment and eventually took a commission as a major in the Northumberland Fusiliers. Serving "on loan" to various units across the Western Front, it is said that Vaughan served as the personal intelligence agent of David Lloyd George, the Welsh Minister of Munitions who became Prime Minister in 1916. When Vaughan's health began to fail in 1917, he was transferred as a Temporary Colonel to a command in the Labor Corps. His gallant service was mentioned in dispatches twice and he was named a member of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). In 1919, Vaughan died of liver cancer and was posthumously made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
After Vaughan's death, his wife and four children struggled emotionally and financially but they tried to cling on to the Gordon relics. Helping to relieve the family's periodic poverty, Vaughan's wealthy literary patron, Sir Howard de Walden, frequently purchased the Gordon portrait only to later return it to the household. After the death of Vaughan's wife, his daughter Olwen made an effort to find suitable homes for her father's various treasures and papers. Gordon's "magic" ring was for a time displayed with the Bible at the Gordon School in Woking, England. The ring eventually accompanied Vaughan's eldest son, Rhys, to Ontario, Canada. He sent it back to the United Kingdom sometime in the 1970s, the stone somewhat worse from an attempted restoration. It was during that time that a photograph of the ring was accessioned by the National Library of Wales, which had received many of Vaughan's papers and effects from his daughter, Olwen. Regrettably, the current whereabouts of the ring and the other Gordon items are unknown. The big portrait of Gordon, however, still glares down from the family wall, now in the home of Vaughan's granddaughter in Helston, Cornwall.
In his semi-autobiographical novel of the Anglo-Boer War, A.O. Vaughan wrote about the culture of storytelling pervading the life of the irregulars on the veldt. Sitting about the camp fire after a rough meal, one of the scouts, a "man from a wild country," began to tell a tale that had "become a legend there, for the wonder of the hero of it." Chuckling, Vaughan's protagonist goes on to explain that the tale is about himself, an incident during his youth in the American West. Having taken the tale as their own, however, the men had "rounded and added and polished it into a regular story." Much the same process of myth making and story-telling surrounds the tale of Gordon's magic ring and the motto of the Legion of Frontiersmen. However, a well documented explanation of the tale can be found. A ring did exist, it did belong to Gordon, and its protective inscription was associated with acts of daring and heroism during the Anglo-Boer War. Adventurer, scout and novelist, A.O. Vaughan wore the fabled ring and was quite capable of spinning tales about it to his fellow Frontiersmen. It was a good story and those early Frontiersmen took it as their own, rounding, adding, and polishing it until a poetic interpretation of the mysterious inscription - "God Guard Thee" - was adopted as the motto of the Legion itself.
A Note on Sources:
The details above are documented in a number of collections and archives, including early correspondence and letters held in a family collection. The National Library of Wales holds correspondence and papers related to Arthur Vaughan and the ring in the Arthur Vaughan Papers (Owen Rhoscomyl) and the J. Glyn Davies Correspondence.
1 Pocock's account in his 1931 Chorus to Adventurers varies somewhat. He names the man as Stumer, a name not existing in any records found. This is possibly because Pocock was critical of the man later on the same page and thought it wiser to use a false name. .
Index to photos:
1 Frontispiece from Owen Vaughan’s book Old Fireproof.
2 Owen Vaughan (Owen Rhoscomyl) wearing the leopard’s claw on his cap. This picture is © Vicki Matthew and is reproduced with her kind permission.
3 Vaughan in the Canadian Scouts.
4 The Sketch, showing a group of Frontiersmen, including Vaughan, in July 1905
This article is © John S Ellis September 2014 and may not be reproduced in full or in part without the author’s permission.