Frontiersmen in their own words (Part 1)

Scenes from East Africa

Scenes from East Africa

For this new Topic page we will mainly rely on the reminiscences of Frontiersmen who served in East Africa with 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). There is no need for any additional comment by the official Legion historians, as the accounts of the men who experienced the trials and tribulations of that unusual arena of the First War are sufficiently descriptive. Where possible we will name the contributor and the source, but not all of these are known. The first extract is from an article in the “Sunday Dispatch” of February 6th 1916 written by an unknown journalist who seems to have received regular letters from the Frontiersmen in East Africa.

A picturesque sight in London streets used to be Colonel Driscoll’s Legion of Frontiersmen with their sombrero [sic] hats. Khaki shirts, and riding breeches. Everybody wondered what use the War Office would make of them. The men themselves, thirsting for adventure, were as eager to know as the rest; but all they were able to glean was that they were to be sent out somewhere on a secret mission. Then one day the Strand knew them no more, and many weeks elapsed before news of them came through. They were no longer the Legion of Frontiersmen, but the 25th Royal Fusiliers, and they had been taken to German East Africa to fight under conditions that were as full of danger and adventure as they could wish…

When the war broke out a world muster of the Legion of Frontiersmen brought in a roll call of about 5,000, most of whom joined up at headquarters in London. A review of the Legion saw no fewer than 1,500 assembled, but as the War Office was slow in making up its mind what to do with them many drifted away and joined various service regiments. There are Frontiersmen today who are in the Royal Artillery and in most cavalry formations…Finally Colonel Driscoll collected a thousand of the hardy fellows, all between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five, and exchanged their prairie attire for the less picturesque Fusilier uniform and tropical helmets…Their experiences since then make the most extraordinary story it is possible to conceive. Practically every one of these men has had a most adventurous career, but what they had gone through was nothing compared to what was in store for them. They have had not only to fight Germans and natives but all manner of wild beasts; coming across a lion on sentry duty is quite an ordinary event.

A canteen voucher issued to the men.

A canteen voucher issued to the men.

Next is from notes of a conversation an unknown Frontiersman had in August 1985 with Mr. John Hall of Leeds about his brother, Private Clifford A Hall, no 36031:

Two of our brothers were in the Royal Flying Corps so when Clifford joined up he was looking for some unit that was equally glamorous and that’s how he came to join the Frontiersmen Battalion which had quite a reputation even then…He thought the whole thing was a great adventure. Our Clifford was a fine figure of a man, standing over six foot and weighing fifteen stones. He was a good all-round sportsman and joined up with two of his friends, Charles D. Ingleby who was an Oxford Blue and Billy Eager a well-known Rugby League forward, both from Ilkley…

When he got back from Africa my brother told me that they were not sufficiently prepared for the rigours of the climate and inadequately trained for the kind of warfare they were to undertake. They seemed to be short of every sort of supplies and even drinking water was a problem. This resulted in many cases of sickness. Talking of supplies, my brother would often say that they had more drinks from the Germans than he got from the British Government. This was because the Germans were well supplied and if the Frontiersmen got word that the Germans were having a party they would organise a raid while the enemy were occupied with their black women. Clifford was in F.C. Selous’ Company and many of these raids were planned and led by this officer. Selous favoured about four o’clock in the morning for his attacks, the time when nocturnal activities ceased and the daytime life of the jungle commenced. This officer seemed to command a great deal of affection and respect from the men of his Company,and his knowledge of the jungle was a great asset to them in their struggle to survive…Clifford said that in action Selous was very cool, always picking a line of approach that was unlikely to be defended such as through a swamp, encouraged the men to crawl to their objective using cover and launching themselves at the enemy at close-quarters…

In spite of leaving his youth and good health behind him in East Africa he was immensely proud of the Frontiersmen Battalion and the men he served with. ‘They were men’s men, he would say, ‘you could stand back to back with them and know they would never let you down.’

 "And men must work..."

“And men must work…” an ironic statement to the photo added by Wilson

Major H.H.R. White, D.S.O., O.B.E. was the first adjutant and very shortly the second-in-command of the Battalion. He was an “old-school” soldier, a hunting shooting and fishing country gentleman who tended to be bewildered by the assortment of toughs who served under him. According to a letter in our archives written to us by his son Henry, who died in his ninety-ninth year:

Father was a great story-teller – entertaining – and told of a prank they played on the German Commander [presumed to be Von Lettow-Vorbeck]. Having at that time the higher ground, he told his gunner to put a couple of shells left and right of the commander’s tent – but not to hurt him. This done on a hot afternoon, out comes the commander in his underpants. Siesta interrupted. Father used to say that wars were a little more friendly in those days, in their peculiar ways.

Probably the Major made that comment long years after the war when memories of the unpleasant events had faded.

Major John Swan Leitch was a Canadian based in Winnipeg. His grave is in the military area of Winnipeg cemetery where it is well tended. He was badly wounded in East Africa, but survived.

In the Regiment were men from all over the world. Men who had come to fight for their native land from Honolulu, Hong Kong, China, Ceylon, Malay States, India, New Zealand, Australia, South and East Afrtica, Egypt, South America, Mexico, the United States and Canada; men from Arctic explorations, others were of the Royal North-West Mounted Police and of the British South Africa Police. Even a cow-puncher or two from under the flag of the U.S.A. were amongst this force of Frontiersmen.

Others, again, were famous game hunters, such as Lieutenant George Outram, Martin Ryan, Sir Northrup McMillan, Captain Welstead, and Cherry Kearton, the renowned big game hunter, naturalist and explorer who had specialised in photographing big game in Africa, and the greatest of all these hunters was Captain Fred. C. Selous, who at the age of 64 enlisted in the 25th Battalion [he was actually 63 when he enlisted] and fell fighting gallantly at the head of his company in the East Africa campaign. Captain Buchanan, a native of Saskatchewan,* who recently made a wonderful trip across the Sahara desert into the interior of Central Africa, was another of the younger officers who in the campaign were to bring renown to the Regiment.

Frontiersmen after the first Armistice Day Parade in Leeds

A very faded photograph taken of Frontiersmen after the first Armistice Day Parade in Leeds. Note that several of the men turned out wearing their tropical helmets.

*Angus Buchanan was actually a native of the Orkney Islands. He had spent some time in Canada before the First War on an expedition. The trip across the Sahara Desert through western Sudan, which was made soon after the end of the War was a natural history one on behalf of Lord Rothschild and Tring Museum. Buchanan’s “Three Years of War in East Africa” is his most famous book, but he wrote others, including his 1921 account of the Sahara expedition “Out of the World: North of Nigeria”. Selous was born December 31st 1851 and killed in action on January 4th 1917, age 65.

From the writings of Major George Douglas Hazzledine:

At Maktau in the Tsavo desert the Hun was blowing up the line once a week, until Driscoll took us there and started vigorous patrols in force with new bush formations. They did not do it again. They tried.

Our night ambush parties interrupted them several times and there were a few small fights. They did not like us. We heard this afterwards from prisoners.

At first we used to find their dynamite near the hole they had abandoned half dug because they heard us coming, and later we heard terrific explosions in the bush a mile or so away, which was the Hun askari party making a bang to show their officers in the distance that they had carried out orders.

The Indian [Army] Staff stopped our patrols in force, criticised our formations and accused us of all sorts of mistakes, but we always came out top on the enquiries – and there were some enquiries….

Twice at Lukigura and at Zuwani, he [Driscoll] took charge of the battle and saved the situation…

When writing about Lukigura. Hazzeldine told the following anecdote:

 Just before this midnight halt I was told that Sergeant Skeet had collapsed. To stir him into effort he was told there was a rhino close behind and he said, ‘I can’t help it. If the beggar won’t be friendly he must bite me.’ Skeet had been the father paternal of many of our young members from the start, a soldier of long experience. He was a real loss.

For many years the Legion of Frontiersmen were very strong in Yorkshire. During the First War Yorkshire contributed many Frontiersmen to 25th Royal Fusiliers, as can be seen in the following newspaper report. The Leeds unit was kept alive during the war by Legion Captain Rowland Winn, a wealthy Yorkshire motor dealer whose business continued for many years and whose name is still remembered. Winn became Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1938. He kept in as regular contact with the Frontiersmen in East Africa as possible. He reported the following to the “Leeds Weekly Citizen” of 2nd February 1916:

Having heard that the boat carrying part of our mails had been sunk, the under-mentioned thought it would be as well to cable you to ask if you would inform our friends that we are all right. The following were subscribers (to the cablegram) A L Gardner, C Hall, J Field, J Sedgwick, G Nicol, F Moorhouse, J H Smith, L Booth, H Pollard, J H Duerden, P Fenwick, O Brown, H Spink, B Higgins, V Ramsden, and Collins, Jenkins, C Firth, W Buckle, F Hargreaves, A Ackroyd, Markinson, C Wilson, R H Pearson, H Duckett, Wright, Letchem, H Buckton, H Fowler, A Towler, E Allsopp, W A Spetch, Sudderby, and C D Ingleby.

We have been in a coast town for the last two months but we expect to be moved at any time. Except for a case or two of malaria and dysentery our fellows keep pretty well, but none of us have a great deal of energy, as it is so frightfully hot both day and night. We are all anxious to get to some other place for a change. The letter is signed by Pte. A L Gardner of the Legion of Frontiersmen.

More from Major John S. Leitch:

Space does not permit of mentioning the hundreds of gallant deeds performed by members of the Regiment. Riddled through and through with fever, most times absolutely in rags, nearly all emaciated and staring-eyed, they were always in the van, and up to the very end no German Field Company would look with other than apprehension to meeting the 25th Royal Fusiliers on even terms.

Finally, on a different and light note, the following appeared in a Frontiersmen magazine from the 1920s. The local Frontiersmen were parading through Brighton in full splendid dress uniform when the following was overheard.

One old lady remarked to her husband, ‘My dear, I have never seen the Salvation Army dressed like this before.’

One lady asked her husband what the Frontiersmen were and with a lordly air he replied, ‘Oh, they are the Boy Scouts you have heard so much about. They are going to Palestine to be blessed by the Pope.’

The pictures shown here are © Legion of Frontiersmen (CMO) archives and from the Yorkshire Command album compiled over many years by W.R. Wilson who served with 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers(Frontiersmen) in East Africa. After WW1 he remained an enthusiastic and loyal member of the Legion. For many years Yorkshire and its cities, such as Leeds, were major centres for the Legion of Frontiersmen.

The article above was originally published on in August 2014 and has since been revised and updated.

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved.  This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Archive Topics, Frontiersmen, History, Legion of Frontiersmen and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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