We know from contemporary accounts in provincial newspapers that during the 1920s on Remembrance Days at the Cenotaph in London the Legion were delegated to lead the civilian section of the parade. Although uniformed and wearing ranks, the Legion is indeed a civilian organisation. For many years we have become used to the British Legion taking the lead part, but they were not formed until 1921 and were a new organisation, whereas the Legion of Frontiersmen had existed for nearly twenty years. They had a named unit in the First War and many Frontiersmen had fought and died in countless armed forces all around the world, so therefore enjoyed considerable public respect and approval. The Boy Scouts were three years junior to the Legion and had indeed taken on board some of the Legion ideas. Hence the Legion of Frontiersmen could be considered as the senior civilian organisation on parade and could be relied upon to lead the parade with smartness and great dignity. This gave the Legion a position of some importance. They needed to hang on to that position, but throughout its history there have always been events to detract from their high standing. 1923 saw the Frontiersmen World Flight Expedition1 which, had it been a success, would have raised the profile of the Legion throughout the world. It was not a success, but an embarrassing failure. Legion HQ claimed that it had been a private venture by the founder Roger Pocock, but as the ship was named the “Frontiersman” and the Legion had involved itself enthusiastically in publicity before it sailed from London, that denial of responsibility was not believed.
1924 was a roller-coaster year for the Legion with a number of ups and downs – of course there have been many such years in the Legion’s more than 110 years history, but this year was quite notable. It started well when the Legion’s President was appointed Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, an important position in the Royal Household and one which gave him an even greater range of influential contacts than he already had. This was helpful, as the Cdt-General, Col Tamplin was ailing and needed to step back from most of his duties. He was to die in April 1925. There was no natural successor and much of the work fell on the shoulders of Legion Captain Arthur Burchardt-Ashton, who was the Treasurer and Adjutant. He had been too old to be accepted for service in the First War and had served mainly with the Y.M.C.A. in France. He eventually became a reluctant Cdt-General, but only had limited support due to his lack of service in action. The advantage to the Legion was his great wealth. Had it not been for his considerable financial support the Legion could easily have folded after the War, as there was much poverty and many Frontiersmen were seeking jobs. They found subscriptions and the purchase of uniforms a substantial burden.
April saw a set-back for the Legion. From the first ANZAC Day commemoration they had always paraded around a hundred strong in London in memory of the estimated 1500 Australian and New Zealand Frontiersmen who had been killed, mainly at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. Arrangements were being made for the Frontiersmen to lead the parade as always, this time to be commanded by the Adjutant as Tamplin was unfit for the duty. Tamplin was surprised to receive a letter from the Australian High Commissioner telling him that the Legion’s request to attend the parade to St Clement Danes Church was refused and the Legion would not be required. He was even more surprised because no request had been made and the London parade had previously been led by the Frontiersmen. The High Commissioner advised Tamplin that this year there would be so many Australians and Australian Cadets present that there would be no room for any Frontiersmen. Tamplin was too frail to fight this diktat, but there was great disquiet in the Legion, especially as the High Commissioner made no mention in letters of New Zealanders, who the Frontiersmen also wished to represent. The Frontiersmen would have liked the Australian High Commission to be asked what they thought the letters N Z stood for in ANZAC and why Australia wished to usurp the day. The Legion was left without its usual representation at a major London parade, with some spectators wondering why they were absent. An additional problem in May 1924 was a burglary at HQ at 6 Adam Street, London when the safe was broken into and cash stolen. There would have been little money to steal, but every penny was important to the Legion, who lived a mainly hand-to-mouth existence financially.
The summer of 1924 saw a major exhibition at Wembley, repeated in 1925, which was an attraction attracting visitors from around the world and bringing added trade and benefits to the Dominions and countries of what was later to become the British Commonwealth:
When it opened on 23 April 1924, the British press described the British Empire Exhibition as the largest and most important exhibition since 1851. Set in the north London suburb of Wembley and spread over 220 acres, this massive undertaking included commercial, technological and artistic displays, national pavilions, an amusement park, restaurants, cinemas and an artificial lake. Part trade fair and part theme park, it attracted approximately twenty-five million visitors over the two seasons that it remained open; seventeen million of them attended in 1924 alone. Advertised in the illustrated weekly newspaper The Graphic as the “gateway to the world,” the BEE assembled in one place the member nations of the British empire to celebrate imperial unity and to increase mutual economic cooperation. The Times reported that King George V, the grandson of Queen Victoria, opened the exhibition on St. George’s Day, 23 April 1924, before a crowd of approximately 100,000 people, many of whom were seated or standing in the new Empire Stadium.2
The ninetieth anniversary of this great event has gone largely unheralded, perhaps because any mention of “British Empire” is no longer politically correct and not considered a matter of pride. Britain had no intention of acquiring more possessions as a result of the First War, but in fact between 1914 and 1919 the area of the world ruled by Britain expanded by 9%. In 1921 Britain was at the apex of an Empire comprising 58 countries. 3 Between the Wars schoolchildren were given a day off school to celebrate Empire Day. No wonder the Frontiersmen were proud of Empire. Admittedly, many people visited the exhibition more for the funfair and the dance halls rather than the wonderful range of exhibits from all over the Empire. However much it is downgraded by some contemporary thinking, the event is in the history of the Commonwealth and Her Majesty the Queen is proud to remain the head of the Commonwealth. The Legion of Frontiersmen were keen to take part. How could they achieve this? The Exhibition would prove everything the Legion stood for. “It has consistently called for men to go and help drive out the frontiers, so that civilisation may have more room for life and growth…” 4 There are those in the 21st century who would consider the concept of imperialism as contemptible, but in those days it was accepted. Although the Government was giving a limited guarantee over costs, a large number of volunteers were needed and the Frontiersmen were ready to do their part. They needed a summer camp and were originally going to use a site on a farm some 25 minutes walk from the Exhibition provided by the Imperial Settlement League, an organisation dedicated to helping young men in that time of recession find work opportunities in countries of the Empire. The advantage of a camp site would be that the many Frontiersmen from abroad expected to visit England and the Exhibition would have somewhere to stay at a reasonable cost. Sadly the League was forced to fold, but the Receivers looked kindly on the Legion and they were allowed to camp at Horsenden Hill Farm, Greenford. Horsenden Hill is now a very pleasant public open space.
The Frontiersmen had made efforts to be allowed to take part in the opening ceremony, but this was rejected. Especially following the embarrassment of ANZAC Day and the World Flight Expedition they were reluctant to ask to take part in the Empire Day celebrations in May. They were delighted to be asked at very short notice to provide twenty Frontiersmen to carry the banners of the dependencies as escort to the Union Jack throughout the weekend. At once the Legion provided forty volunteers. According to the Portsmouth Evening News the request had come direct from the War Office. Knowing the War Office’s dislike and distrust of the Legion, this sounds unlikely but economics could have played a part. Rather than divert soldiers for the task, they knew the Legion could provide smart and skilled men – at no cost to the taxpayer. As ever, the smart Frontiersmen stood out and were noticed and received numerous mentions in provincial newspapers. The Western Daily Press wrote that on the Saturday Pageant of Youth in front of the Duke of Connaught and a crowd of 139,550 at Wembley Stadium, The first Union Jack and its escort of sister flags was borne by a Squadron of the Legion of Frontiersmen, picturesquely uniformed in khaki breeches, blue tunics and wide khaki hats.
On the Sunday, May 25th, Empire Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in front of King George V and Queen Mary and another immense crowd. The Dundee Courier reported that, Their Majesties took their places in the Royal box at once, and the lay procession across the Stadium began. Entering through the eastern tunnel, the procession was headed by the mounted State Trumpeters, the mounted band of the Household Cavalry, and a detachment of the Metropolitan Mounted Police. Then came the bearers of the White Ensign, the Union Jack, and the R.A.F. Ensign, followed by the Ensigns of the Dominions, India and the Colonies carried by members of the Legion of Frontiersmen.
As can be seen from the photo of the day shown here, the Legion also provided mounted men stationed around the perimeter alongside other mounted uniformed men. Underneath a photograph of the King and Queen and the Prince of Wales, The Daily Mail printed another photo clearly showing the Frontiersmen marching proudly bearing the Standards. Unfortunately, the copy of that which we hold in the archives is not of sufficient quality to reproduce here.
The Frontiersmen really wished to show their prowess in the Pageant of Empire, a showpiece throughout the six weeks of the Exhibition. It seemed to everyone in the Legion that no Pageant of Empire could be complete unless the brown boots and leggings, riding breeches and belt, shirt or tunic and stetson hat were there.5 They were rejected until an Australian Frontiersman chanced to meet with the Pageant Master Frank Lascelles6 who was discussing how that Dominion should shape her scenes. He reminded Lascelles of the Legion and Lascelles immediately asked for their help. They hit another problem in that the War Office decreed that in this event army horses should only be ridden by serving soldiers – this in spite of the fact that Frontiersmen units often trained alongside the T.A. and throughout the inter-war period were regularly allowed to use their barracks and horses. Fortunately other horses were found in the nick of time and the Frontiersmen starred as the Australian Mounted Police. The Pageant was split into sections on different days, but even so a dedicated group of Frontiersmen gave up two evenings a week without fail. For their support they received a glowing letter of thanks from Australia House. They also received letters of thanks from Frank Lascelles and from Prince Arthur of Connaught, whose daughter was Princess Patricia of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, whose close links with the Legion were well known. In addition, Captain Melville of the Hammersmith Squadron was given permission to be stationed in the Canadian Pavilion. He acquired many recruits for the Legion over the summer.
The Exhibition was repeated in 1925 with a number of improvements. The Frontiersman magazine reported with satisfaction that The closing ceremony will take place on the afternoon of October 31st. The whole of the standard bearers for one of the ceremonies will be supplied by the Legion of Frontiersmen, who will each carry a banner of some portion of the Empire. It is also expected that Frontiersmen will figure largely in other directions. In October 1925 the Prince of Wales arrived back in London by Royal train from a tour of South Africa and South America. Although the main Guard of Honour was provided by the Life Guards, mounted Frontiersmen lined up as a second Guard and also escorted the Prince through London. Two years that had begun with problems ended quite well for the Legion.
What relevance do these events of ninety-plus years ago have today? It shows that persistence pays. In spite of the problems that may beset Frontiersmen, to be always willing to offer services to the community as Frontiersmen still do can result in requests to feature on a much larger scene, although it is unlikely they will again appear in front of such a large crowd . Publicity and recruitment follow and the Legion can then begin to expand closer to the membership it once enjoyed.
1 see Geoffrey A Pocock “Outrider of Empire” (University of Alberta Press, 2008) 268-297
2Anne Clendinning, On The British Empire Ex… http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=anne-clendinning-on-the-british-empire-exhibition-1924-25
3 Boris Johnson “The Churchill Factor” (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) 317
4 “The Frontiersman” magazine, January 1924, 102
5 “The Frontiersman” magazine, September 1924, 57
6 Frank Lascelles (1875-1934) was one of the most famous pageant masters in Britain. The fashion for holding pageants began in earnest in the early years of the century. Lascelles organised his last pageant of many in 1932. He was known as “the man who staged the Empire”. See also: http://thesibfords.org.uk/sibipedia/frank-lascelles and Knight and Sabey “The Lion Roars at Wembley” (published privately, 1984)
Additional research by the late Bruce Fuller.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.