Early Frontiersmen, horses and the influence of the “wild west”.
It is only since the end of WW2 that Frontiersmen have not been required to be able to ride a horse, although successful mounted Troops still exist. The early Frontiersmen were accurate in their prediction that war with Germany would happen within ten years, but wrong in their view that there would be a rôle for individuals or small mounted groups acting as scouts and guerillas ranging across enemy territory. Nobody, not even the Frontiersmen, predicted the attritional trench warfare that was to take so many lives of men and horses. Thousands of horses would be needed, but not in the way the Frontiersmen planned and trained for. Even the Frontiersmen who went out to East Africa as the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) found there was little need for their riding skills as horses could not survive for long due to the ravages caused by the flies.
Many early Frontiersmen had worked with horses in America, Canada, South America and South Africa, and boasted such names as “Texas” Thompson and “Mexican Joe” Russell, who showed off his skills in shows around Britain as “Joe Rosselle”. He claimed to have been a cowboy and outlaw and was number 88 on the Legion list of members. It was Mexican Joe who designed and sketched out the original Legion uniform. In Edwardian times even educated people had little knowledge of life in America. When Nancy, who became Lady Astor, arrived in England in 1904 and began hunting in Leicestershire, she discovered that many of her new friends believed that America was peopled almost entirely by “Redskins”. There was a great interest in stories of the “wild west” and so Roger Pocock could make a comfortable living with his stories of adventures in America and Canada. Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West shows gave an imaginative picture of American and cowboy life. His farewell shows, which travelled around Britain in 1902-3 and 1904 were a sensation and attracted the crowds. Numbers of early Frontiersmen, who Roger called the range men, had worked in the west and there began to be some friction in the Legion between these range men and other Frontiersmen whose background was military and wanted a more military and less casual set-up to the Legion. It did not help that some of the old range men were fond of camp-fire yarns where they could often exaggerate their past adventures. After Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had departed Britain for the last time, numbers of smaller imitation shows could be found around the country and those who had been out west and acquired some trick riding skills could earn money displaying them. “Montana Bill” (William Bailey Robeson, who also used other names) was well known in Scotland and claimed to have worked with Buffalo Bill, but many of his claims have proved to have been either untrue or unsubstantiated. His appearance in Frontiersmen uniform with his long hair flowing behind his Stetson would not have sat comfortably with the impression that the Frontiersmen with a military background would have wished to make.
“Texas” Thompson was the first commanding officer of the Legion’s London Squadron. John Pickering Thompson was born in 1861, the son of a very senior civil servant who worked at Somerset House. Our researches into his life were not helped by there being two John Pickering Thompsons. The other one was born much later, in 1882, married 1912 and became a regular army officer rising to the rank of Lieut.-Colonel. In 1881, aged 19, we find our J.P. Thompson working as an apprentice brewer at Leneys of Dover, Kent. We then lose track of him until 1889 when the local papers give a full account of the wedding of Kate Naomi Leney, daughter of Alfred Leney and Mr. J. P. Thompson of San Antonio, Texas. One has to wonder whether perhaps a romance between the wealthy brewer’s daughter a couple of years younger than Thompson and the young apprentice caused one or both families to pack the young man off to America to see if the romance cooled. It obviously did not, as the couple remained happily married until Thompson’s death in 1940. Kate survived until 1958, dying at the grand old age of 95. They had three sons, one of whom died young. They must have moved back to Texas for a few years as the eldest son, John H, was born there within about a year of the marriage. Alfred Leney died in 1901 and left some shares in the brewery to his daughter and son-in-law. By that time the family was living at Godmersham in Kent and Thompson is listed as a farmer. They were financially able to employ a governess for the two youngest boys. In 1911 the family were living in South Kensington, London and the father is on the census as an unemployed farmer and brewer. It is interesting that the eldest son, John H., age 21, was visiting them at the time of that census, but his occupation was noted as U.S. Army officer, so he must have soon returned to the country of his birth. Thompson joined the British army in September 1914, being immediately commissioned and given the rank of temporary Captain. He served in the Army Service Corps and was an expert in the packing of horses, one of the Frontiersmen’s special skills. Later in the war he unsuccessfully applied to be appointed as one of the British officers attached to the U.S. Army for training purposes. In spite of his Texas experience, he was rejected. In order to get into the army, he had to reduce his age by ten years and give his birth as May 1871 and not 1861. This was a fairly common practice by older men keen to be accepted. The fact that his attestation form showed his trade or calling as a gentleman of independent means and that he listed six years of service in the Texas U.S.A. Irregular Cavalry (also named by him as the Texas Light Horse) would have been to his advantage. Naming his wife as next-of-kin and his wedding as in 1889 when that would have meant he was barely eighteen at marriage, seems to have been ignored.1
Skills learned in America, Canada and some of the wilder parts of the world featured strongly in Frontiersmen training, as can be seen in the extraordinary Frontiersman’s Pocket Book. Thompson contributed a piece on Ranche Sports in a section entitled ‘Amusements’. (This section also contained instructions on how to make a fiddle from a cigar box, a stick of hardwood and some wire or animal sinews.) Thompson wrote that Pony racing in Texas is bareback, rider generally shedding his boots. Distance is usually from 100 to 300 yards, judged at both ends. The judges at the start report to judges at finish as to any advantage of a rider at the start. He also said that tilting at the ring or picking up a hat or handkerchief at full gallop, steer-roping, and shooting competitions are popular.2 The picking up hat or handkerchief at full gallop compares with tent-pegging, still carried out by today’s mounted Frontiersmen, who are internationally famous for their skills at that sport.
Other than Frontiersmen headquarters in Adam Street London, the main meeting place for Frontiersmen who had worked in American and Canada was El Desperado, the quaintly named club based in a log cabin at Cecil Morgan and Evelyn ffrench’s School of Colonial Instruction at Shepperton, Middlesex. “Pete” Morgan had served in the N.W. Mounted Police and in later life was to work for the Canadian First Nations Department in Ontario. Evelyn ffrench was an Australian who had served in South Africa. Photographs show him standing on the saddle. An expert with the stock whip… once, bidding me pull my revolver on him, at twenty paces and with one flick of the stockwhip, he disarmed me, and lashed my gun-hand to my thigh without causing the slightest pain.3 He toured as a stockwhip artist, using the name “Jeffrey Silant”. The national newspapers were always interested in the activities of the Frontiersmen. In April 1908 on the Thames at Shepperton they demonstrated Morgan’s invention of a pack saddle that converted into a boat. In September of that year at the Frontiersmen camp in Kent they showed how they were able to roast food in earth ovens and cook in clay without dishes. They also showed how they were able to lay scout signs. No wonder they made a great impression on the newly formed Boy Scout movement, whose first title according to the first Scout magazine was “The Legion of Boy Scouts”. When Morgan got married with a large attendance of mounted Frontiersmen, it drew large crowds and the Shepperton “Cowboy Wedding” became the subject of postcards and discussions for many years to follow.
A change occurred in 1909 following the annual meeting. Roger Pocock, the Founder, had embarrassed the Legion by his actions once to often. In spite of his nearly five years dedication to the Legion, it was decided that he could no longer be given any position of authority. With his withdrawal the western influences, although still there, became less pronounced. The Legion came under the leadership of Lt.Col. D.P. Driscoll, D.S.O. Although Driscoll followed the aims and objects of the Legion, he organised it on more military and less flexible lines. Ranks became more defined, although he would not allow any rank higher than Captain unless the man had held Field rank in the army, as he considered that would be an insult to the military. The increased militarism was not approved by Baden-Powell and the Boy Scouts reduced their links with the Legion, although they still recommended the Frontiersman’s Pocket Book as essential reading. As we saw in the last Topic page, the Frontiersmen still considered the horse most important and that it would have an important rôle in scouting in a coming war. Every Command of the Legion, now spreading throughout the world, included all aspects of riding in their regular training. The horse remained very important in many parts of the world, such as Malta, where motorised transport had still to make an impression. Many thousands of horses were needed in the coming war, but not in the way the Frontiersmen expected.
When war began, the exceptional skills of the Frontiersmen with horses in general and in breaking wild horses were soon much in demand in Remounts. Frontiersmen began arriving from all around the world and many had the same skill with horses that Frontiersmen with range experience now living in Britain had demonstrated for some years. Some were keen to get into action, so Driscoll found regiments best suited to their skills and eager to take experienced Frontiersmen into their ranks, often as n.c.o.s or officers. Driscoll utilised in the Remounts those men prepared to wait for a named Frontiersmen unit. At the start of the war, the British Army only owned around 25,000 horses so, as soon as possible, ship-loads of unbroken horses began arriving from Canada, U.S.A. and other countries. On Legion of Frontiersmen headed paper from Adam Street, London, Driscoll wrote an open letter for distribution “To whom it may concern”:
Having had a conversation with the Chief Officer of Remounts at the War Office, I was advised to apply to the officer in charge at Liverpool, Avonmouth and Southampton, with a view to offering members of the above corps to break in horses and carry out parade movements with them, so as to perfect them for their work in the Service. I have deputed Mr. A.G. Burchardt-Ashton to represent me in this matter, and to make all arrangements with the officers concerned. I desire in the event of our being called out that the men be permitted to rejoin me for active service.
Driscoll considered that the Frontiersmen would perform useful duties until the Legion was granted their named unit. They were accepted at Shirehampton, as on October 29th 1914 he wrote to Burchardt-Ashton, Remount Depot, Shirehampton: Please inform Sgt. Newbold and Sergeant-Majors Page and Knight that I approve of your taking on the appointment of Legion Riding Master in the Remount Depot. One gets a hint from Driscoll’s next letter to Burchardt-Ashton on November 4th that Colonel Carter, who was in charge at Shirehampton, was uncertain as to the value of the Frontiersmen who were likely to be called suddenly to active service.
See Col. Carter at once and ask him from me to back me up in my endeavour to get our men attested for the combined duties of remounts and preparedness for active service, in case the country need us. Tell him to trust me that even if I withdraw 1000 men from the Depot for Active Service, their places will be immediately filled in the depot as I will supply also meanwhile the unattested men for work in the Depot; and these will then come on the attested list…Tell the Colonel that my proposition has gone in to Lord K[itchener] last week…What I do will remove a great load off the Remount officers, and will ensure a large force of disciplined men who will be doing all the Remount duties, whilst also preparing for active service; and who knows, how badly we may be wanted in some part or another of the Empire…If I could find time I would run down to see Col. Carter; but at present every minute is taken up. I also want to arrange to get our fine men over from Canada and elsewhere to swell the body of useful men.
In spite of Driscoll’s persuasion, it appears that Col. Carter was still unenthusiastic about using the Frontiersmen. On December 13th Driscoll wrote to Burchardt-Ashton with a hint of irritation:
We have offered the remounts something for their own benefit, and that of the Empire. If the Bristol branch do not choose to avail themselves of the advantage, that is their look out. I do not think we need trouble ourselves any further with them. Major Fisher at Southampton on the other hand, is keenly desirous of having our men and I am sending him all I can.
Certainly, what evidence we have shows that there were many more Frontiersmen working at the Remount depots around Southampton. There were still some at Shirehampton as, when the Frontiersmen were granted their named unit for active service in East Africa, Driscoll wrote again in February to Burchardt-Ashton: We are for East Africa and will sail some time in April. I will wire you and you can make it known to the men in the Remount Depot who care to come along…I think you can safely let the men in Shirehampton know; but we only want the best class of men. 4 From what we know, every Frontiersmen of an acceptable age was eager to join up with Driscoll. After the unit was formed only a limited number of Frontiersmen remained working with Remounts. The Frontiersmen’s skill with horses, demonstrated in many ways during the Legion’s first ten years, proved to be of great value to their country and the Empire, as it then was.
In the 1930s, the Legion could still almost fill Horseguards Parade with mounted men on their annual parade. Today the U.K. Mounted Troop are still highly regarded, as are the different skills of the Prairies Mounted Troop in Canada.
As to “Texas” Thompson, he served gallantly in France for much of the War with his lie about his age apparently un-noticed and was eventually invalided home with severe Colitis
1. TNA WO339/19755
2. Roger Pocock (Editor) The Frontiersman’s Pocket Book [University of Alberta Press reprint, 2012] 394-396
3. Roger Pocock, Chorus to Adventurers, [The Bodley Head, 1931] 77
4 Letters of Lt. Col. D.P. Driscoll, DSO, CMG from the archives of Countess Mountbatten’s Own LEGION OF FRONTIERSMEN. ©. Not to be reproduced in any form without prior permission.
The article above was originally published on http://www.frontiersmenhistorian.info in April 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.