It is probable that every reader of these articles knows the name of the “slightly mad” Colonel David Stirling of S.A.S. fame. Apparently Stirling knew nothing of the Legion of Frontiersmen until the final weeks of his life when he was dying of cancer in the London Clinic towards the end of 1990. One of Stirling’s friends was Captain Charles Dudley (the grandson of Major-General Sir Sam Steele) who at that time owned Roger Pocock’s albums and archive.
I lent Roger Pocock’s scrapbook to David Stirling, just before he died. I was very glad I did as it gave him great pleasure in the last weeks of his life. He went rapidly downhill just after I took it in to the London Clinic, and died some 2/3 weeks later, but telephoned to discuss it. We had many long and interesting talks, which I always enjoyed. He had a most original approach to any subject whatever.
The background story is that like Roger he set out to ride from Canada to Mexico, climbing mountains en route. But war broke out while he was in Idaho, so he cut short his journey to come home and join the Scots Guards.¹
This is an expansion of what is usually written about what Stirling had been doing, as it is always stated that in 1939 he was preparing to climb Mount Everest. Verbally, Charles Dudley added how excited Stirling had been about Roger Pocock’s ideas and the similarity of some of the aims and principles of the Legion of Frontiersmen to those of the S.A.S. For the first ten years the aims and ideas of the Frontiersmen were too different – or advanced – for the British War Office. From a promising start during 1905 the Frontiersmen began to wane and it was not until early 1906 when a reply was received from the War Office in response to the Legion’s request for official recognition that the Legion began to expand rapidly. Many of the Frontiersmen had served in South Africa and believed in the need for training in scouting and guerilla warfare. This did not fit in with the ideas of the army, but the War Office thought it unwise completely to slap down an organisation which had acquired so many influential backers, so it sent Legion Headquarters what it thought was a carefully-worded reply, expressing its “sympathy with the aims and objects of the Legion” and saying that the Secretary of State “recognised it as a purely private organisation, in no way connected with any Department of State, but one which, should a suitable occasion arise” he might be able to utilise. The War Office was for ever to regret using the word “recognised”, which the Legion pounced on with delight and used constantly in communications and press releases to show its authenticity. By this it gained the support of Militia, Volunteers, Reserves and, from 1908, the newly-formed Territorial Forces. The War Office back-pedalled furiously by changing their view to saying that they “took cognisance of” the Legion, although no expert in the English language has been able to explain to us any clear difference between “recognise” and “take cognisance of”.
Richard Burdon Haldane at the War Office had taken on the task of modernising the army in the light of the problems that had arisen in the Boer War.
…with an Expeditionary Force at home which may have to leave the country, a second line is obviously required for expansion as well as for home defence. This requirement was the genesis of the Territorial or Second Line Army… The Volunteers, although some of them had been brigaded, had neither a transport nor a medical side. The Militia were neither organised nor equipped. They were really only useful as a body from which drafts might be drawn for Regular troops. As Lord Lansdowne had said of them, it was the custom to plunder them on one side and to pillage them on the other. The Yeomanry were an excellent peace organisation of a separate kind, still largely run by the country gentlemen.²
One would have thought that there might have been a useful slot for the Frontiersmen, but their determined independence of thought and peculiar democracy and discipline were an insurmountable barrier. The Frontiersmen were nevertheless involved by invitation in many military exercises and summer camps and displays held by the Militia and the Volunteers and also, after their formation in 1908, The Territorial Force.
We had gorgeous fun when we played at war with the Army or the Territorials. When for example ‘A Pretender to the Throne had landed at Blyth, and was advancing on London,’ the Army made military dispositions for his apprehension; but [Horace Shafto] Orde’s Command observed that Pretenders are notoriously thirsty, and searched the pubs until they made their capture. A horse had fallen and squashed me during the operations, so I was in the ambulance and the unfortunate Pretender became my guest. On another occasion Charlie Brown led the Leeds Command, numbering twenty-three men, against a force of about four hundred, captured the enemy’s artillery, turned the guns on enemy Headquarters, and rode off with the enemy Staff as prisoners of war.³
There is no doubt that Pocock could be somewhat artistic in his descriptions of such events, but he did refer to the affair of the “Pretender” and the horse rolling on him in his entry in his pocket diary for 8th June 1907. On 28th September he wrote that the Yorkshire Command were “out on manoeuvres”. On the following day, a Sunday, that “The boys turned up triumphant at noon.”⁴
On 13th July 1907 an arrangement was made for thirty officers and men of K Company 3rd Volunteer Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers to carry out an attack from the cliffs on the Frontiersmen’s camp at Monkseaton near Whitley Bay in Northumberland. Although the Fusiliers tried in their report to put some gloss on the event, it appears to have been something of a shambles as the mist came in from the sea and the Fusiliers were unable to attack across cornfields in order not to suffer the wrath of the farmers and be landed with a claim for compensation. The Frontiersmen were able to withdraw to their lines quite comfortably while the Fusiliers blundered around in the mist. The refereeing Colonel diplomatically declared a draw and the Fusiliers set up their tents for the night.
After putting up three tents to sleep in for the remainder of the night, and receiving blankets and coffee and other comforts from our late enemies and good friends we turned in for a few hours’ rest or sat around the cookhouse fires and swapped lies until breakfast. Having done justice to this meal and taken sunbaths and disported ourselves generally, we returned to Newcastle, feeling much gratitude to the gallant gentlemen of the pistol and lasso for the very sporting night and morning we had enjoyed in their society.⁵
One is left to wonder what benefit was obtained by the Northumberland Fusiliers Volunteers from the exercise. Probably had the roles been reversed, the Frontiersmen with their scouting and similar skills acquired in South Africa and elsewhere would have had no difficulty entering the camp under the cover of mist. There were other occasions when the Frontiersmen were able to prove this. At the end of June 1909 Orde’s Command were again involved with what became known as the “Battle of Newcastle”. Although official opinion disregarded Erskine Childers’ fictional “Riddle of the Sands”, which suggested that Germany was quite prepared to attack Britain, an exercise was arranged at the end of June 1909. In spite of the fact that the official view was Britain had total mastery of the sea, this was to test the readiness of the Territorial Force in case of a coastal attack. In the “Battle of Newcastle” hundreds of soldiers were set out to defend Newcastle which was being attacked by an invading force landing on the coast north of the little town of Cramlington. The attack was made by the Naval Volunteers with the Legion of Frontiersmen who:
made a clever and well sustained attack upon the left of the Red position and they succeeded in preventing the withdrawal of any troops for the purposes of strengthening the main defences.⁶
The army headquarters was at Killingworth and Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell was the senior officer present observing the exercise. He:
…expressed himself as very well satisfied with the way in which the attack had been conducted from its beginning at Beacon Hill Farm Cramlington and made particular mention of the Naval Volunteers and the Frontiersmen.⁷
It was not only in the north that the Frontiersmen showed their special skills and ability to outwit official forces. Provincial newspapers in England and Scotland reported each summer on Frontiersmen camps and their links with Volunteer and Territorial Forces. We have only touched on a few of the reports. At Easter 1908 the Frontiersmen camped at Teston near Maidstone, Kent, probably in the area that is now a public park. As part of their Easter exercises the London Metropolitan Territorial Corps undertook an exercise with the Kent Frontiersmen. “The Frontiersmen’s camp was attacked on Saturday night in strong force by the Territorial Cyclists, but the latter lost a number of prisoners and the verdict was given to their opponents. “⁸ It seems that yet again the Frontiersmen’s experience was too great for the Territorials. Roger Pocock and some of the London Command added to the numbers in the camp. The tough Frontiersmen under canvas must have been less hindered by the weather than the Territorials as Pocock reported a “big snowstorm” on the Monday and also that the Territorials attack had continued throughout the weekend. The following year the Kent Frontiersmen with members of London Command were again at Easter camp at Teston. On Saturday 10th April 1909 a unit of the Kent Army Service Corps Territorials escorted by the Frontiersmen attempted to cross the River Medway between Maidstone and Yalding and were opposed by the 4th Royal West Kents with No. 4 Company Kent Cyclists and Maidstone School Cadets. By various feints they succeeded in crossing by Teston Bridge and achieved their target of the railway between Maidstone and Wrotham. On Monday the roles were reversed and the Frontiersmen and the Territorial A.S.C. defended their camp. It seems from the reports that close quarter battles became too lively in nature and a ceasefire was hurriedly called and a draw declared to avoid any serious injuries.⁹
What is surprising and has often been overlooked is that the early Frontiersmen relied heavily on cyclists, although of course not as much as on horsemen. Many Commands had dedicated cyclist units with the rank being Cyclist instead of Trooper. The cyclists often performed as well on exercises as the mounted men. A small number of motorcycles were used, but these were not popular due to the noise and also the unreliability of the early motorcycles. The Legion continued to be unpopular with the War Office and in June 1910 a new paragraph, 449A, was inserted into King’s Regulations. Anyone on active service was forbidden to take cognisance of any private organisation of a military character and all Commands were informed by letter that this paragraph was aimed at the Legion of Frontiersmen in particular. This seems to have been ignored by most Territorial Forces who continued to carry out joint exercises and take part in military tournaments with the Frontiersmen. For example in February 1914 Lt.Col. Driscoll officially opened a new Legion Headquarters for the Hull unit at the Walton Street Barracks, which apparently they happily shared with the Territorials.
In the light of the very static war in Europe that was to come, how valuable these joint exercises were to the Territorials has to be a matter of debate. As to the Frontiersmen, Driscoll always considered that there was a need for a highly mobile force of men who could act independently in small groups raiding behind enemy lines. In the early days of the European War, and before it became an affair of trench warfare, Driscoll thought that his Frontiersmen could perform a valuable service by raiding the highly stretched German lines of supply. He also considered there could be a role for the Frontiersmen by utilising their special skills and training in the East African campaign if not in Europe. His ideas were many years ahead of his time and no British General would consider them. Until the First War began to break down some social barriers there was a strong class structure in Britain, if not in countries such as Canada and New Zealand. The problem for the War Office was that the Frontiersmen had no time for any officer who by accident of birth just had lands and a title. They would prefer that their Troop was led by a footloose adventurer with a dubious past, but who had won the Distinguished Conduct Medal in South Africa. Any officer or leader had to earn the respect of his Frontiersmen. It was not until WW2 and David Stirling and the S.A.S. that the scheme of small independent raiding parties was fully utilised. When war began in 1914, Driscoll bombarded the Colonial Office and the War Office with requests to allow the Frontiersmen their own named unit and to utilise those particular skills somewhere in the conflict. Time and again he was rejected until suddenly in early 1915 he was instructed to form the 25th (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) for service in East Africa, although not in the way Driscoll envisaged. When Driscoll was asked to parade his men in September 1914 in London in front of General Bethune, the General reported back to the War Office that the Frontiersmen were “typical toughs” who might do good work as irregulars.
In 1919 one of the Frontiersmen officers who had been with Driscoll throughout the campaign told the story to Manchester newspapers of the police searching for a criminal in early 1915. It was suggested that he might have enlisted in the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) to escape justice. A plain-clothes policeman was despatched to inspect Driscoll’s men in London preparing for embarkation to see if he could identify the criminal. He returned to say that he could not find the man “but I recognised all the others!” One can begin to understand why the War Office were uncertain about the Frontiersmen – but they proved to be good men in a fight and terrified the Germans.
¹ Letter from Charles Dudley in Frontiersmen archives, 10th December 1990.
² Richard Burdon Haldane, Richard Burdon Haldane, an autobiography, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1929) p192.
³ Roger Pocock Chorus to Adventurers,(The Bodley Head, 1931) p44-5.
⁴ Quotations from Roger Pocock’s pocket diaries throughout this article are by kind permission of the Peel Special Collections and Archives, University of Alberta.
⁵ From the 3rd V.B.N.F. magazine re-printed in the Northern Command Frontiersman magazine, September/October 1907. Courtesy Newcastle City Libraries archives.
⁶ Berwick Advertiser July 2nd 1909 (A substantial number of troops were camped at Berwick.)
⁷ Berwick Advertiser July 2nd 1909
⁸ London Daily News 21st April 1908
⁹ For full reports of the weekend see Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 16th April 1909
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.