Surprising Snippets 8: An unsolvable mystery is, who was the person from which official government or military department who decided that the file on the Frontiersmen and Remounts in the last quarter of 1914 was not worth saving at The National Archives? The matter was probably controversial at the time as, although for the first months of the First War Remounts were handled by private contractors and not the army, what position did the Legion of Frontiersmen hold? We know that during those first months Lt.Col. Driscoll bombarded the War Office with requests to use the Frontiersmen as a named unit for various duties on active service. The War Office rather vacillated before they finally instructed Driscoll early in 1915 to form the 25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). Inspections of the Frontiersmen in their uniforms were arranged at a special London parade and the War Office thought they might be able to use them on active service, but then changed their minds.
The army required thousands of horses – far more than could ever be provided in Britain even by commandeering all the horses in private hands they could find. Horses were plentiful especially in Canada but also in the U.S.A. and other countries. These began to be shipped over in quantity. The problem for the War Office was that the horses were unbroken and they did not have the number of soldiers with the skill to break them. Private contractors were employed but they could not find enough skilled men. In the meantime Frontiersmen were pouring into the country from all round the world desperate to enlist and serve the Mother Country, often working their passage as they could not afford passenger fares. Many of these men had been working with horses on ranches in the big countries of the world and also many of the British Frontiersmen had done such jobs when abroad. It was a pre-requisite to being accepted by the Legion that you were a skilled horseman. All these men were keen to serve the Empire in uniform; they were men of experience and years who had often fought in South Africa. Driscoll was keen to keep them until he was granted a Frontiersmen unit, but these men had a multitude of skills which caused them to be eagerly sought by existing regiments so there was a steady loss of numbers which Driscoll was keen to minimise.
The solution was an extraordinary one by War Office standards. Two big camps were set up over many acres at Shirehampton, near Avonmouth Docks, and Swaythling, near Southampton Docks. Both camps were under the command of a semi-retired senior officer, but the day to day running of these camps was undertaken by the Legion of Frontiersmen. For the records, they were considered as private contractors, but wore Frontiersmen uniform and ranks and were under the control of Legion London HQ with Driscoll at its head.
Capt. Prior, O.C. N.E. Squadron, has received instructions from Col. Driscoll, D.S.O., that a few hundred men are required to go into mounted depot for provisional training, either at Shirehampton, Bristol, or Shrewsbury. As already two of the Southern Squadrons are doing duty, it is probable that only one hundred or one hundred and fifty men will be required for the first contingent in the Northern Command. The date will be between October 10th and 15th. The rate of pay is 24s per week and barrack accommodation, all men to enlist as troopers, and N.C.O.’s will be made according to qualifications. (“Sunderland Echo”, 29 September 1914).
Calculating on the six-day week current at the time, the pay was 4 shillings a day, which compared very favourably with the pay of a private soldier of one shilling and one penny a day and a cavalry trooper of one shilling and ninepence a day, even though that would be for a seven day week. (twelve pence made a shilling and twenty shillings one pound).
On the same day, the “Wigan Observer” from the western side of England made a similar request:
Information has been received at headquarters London from the War Office to the effect that the Legion of Frontiersmen will not be called to the Front until all the Regular Forces are called on, and have made the offer that the members of the Legion be called on for remount duty as Troops and Squadrons, and be located in the several Remount Depots now being mobilised for the breaking in of horses from abroad…
On 4th November the “Nottingham Daily Express” featured an account by a Nottingham Frontiersmen of his experiences at Shirehampton:
Just a few lines to let you know all is well up to the present. We are ‘up to the neck’ with Canadian horses – emptied one more ship load today, and there is another one due tomorrow. The accommodation is not yet complete, and we are having to turn them out in the large meadows and catch the bounders as we want them with lassoes [sic]. The meadows are one vast mass of partially wild, unbroken horses which afford us some great excitement.
It is not a matter of flying shot and shell but of flying hoofs. However, it is a magnificent sight and worth the risk. We get any amount of spectators while we are putting the animals through their schooling. I have been chosen with a few others for this somewhat risky job, while the remaining portion are otherwise occupied grooming, etc. We have often to ‘throw’ the horses before we can get on the bridle and saddle. I like the life very much.
It is not surprising that they attracted many spectators for what amounted to a free “wild west show”! Meadow after meadow was fast being converted into a great township of wooden structures with corrugated iron roofs.
…one pauses in wonderment at the mere spectacle of a young [poetic licence!] Frontiersman astride a rearing and plunging horse, which bucks and jumps, side-slips and feints, in a manner which would astound many a clever circus equestrian.
There are many types of horses included in the remounts supplied from across the water. Some appear somewhat tired until a saddle is placed on their backs, and then the fun begins. Yesterday there was splendid scope for the cinematograph operator. The scenery was such as the Vitagraph Company or their compeers [sic] could revel in, and the ‘action of the piece’ lacked nothing in sensational movement and incident. (“Western Daily Press” 30 October 1914).
It has to be regretted that the official file on the Frontiersmen work on Remounts, which was of great importance to the early months of the war, has not survived; it shows the Legion at its best. Perhaps the War Office was careful not to show that it was bending a few rules and recognising the value of the Legion of Frontiersmen?
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