The RSM-in-Chief

SJ Alexander, Buckingham Palace, courtesy IWM

Topic June/July 2018. Before we located the I.W.M. photograph of Sidney James Alexander M.C. outside Buckingham Palace, all we had to start with was a rather faint photograph of him in Frontiersmen uniform. By that time he had acquired some rotundity and his face had filled out from the gauntness it showed when he was presented with his Military Cross by the King, but he still retained his military bearing. The Legion of Frontiersmen used a rank “RSM-in-Chief” that was quite clear to all. The first RSM-in-Chief we have traced was Sidney Alexander. Legion records tell us no details about him, but we have discovered a little more about a brave and sometimes controversial soldier. We do not yet have anywhere near his full life story, but his military career is evidence of the social divides of his time.

Sidney Alexander was born on 28th May 1874. His army career began officially at the age of 18. As an ordinary soldier, no military record was held of his service and in what campaigns he fought. We only know that he was discharged after 21 years service in February 1914 with the rank of Battery Sgt. Major in the 49th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. His service record won him a responsible job as an attendant at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. This would have been the equivalent today of a security officer at the Courts that saw the most serious cases come to trial. Whether he volunteered for service in the First War or whether he was approached first is something else we do not know, but obviously due to his experience being needed he was granted a wartime commission in February 1915 as Lieutenant. In August 1915 he was promoted to Captain, so we can assume that he was a good and reliable officer. The next notable date on his military record is January 1st 1917, when his award of the Military Cross was gazetted. The citations for Military Crosses were then seldom published. There is no mention of any specific incident and New Year’s Day Military Crosses gazetted were often given for general long-term bravery rather than for one particular occasion. What does seem highly unusual is that his Military Cross was presented by King George V himself on 29th August 1917. There were so many Military Crosses awarded that the King would not have been able to present all of them himself.

SJ Alexander

So far, Sidney Alexander seems to have had a spotless character, but he let himself down when he was charged that on the night of 11th-12th February 1918 he was drunk in the field and secondly found to be taking part in a disturbance together with n.c.o.s of his section. He was tried on both charges at Clartres on 23rd February. Initially he planned to plead not guilty to the second charge, but was persuaded to change his plea,although it is doubtful that this was sound advice. He was found guilty and dismissed the service. This seems to us to be a very harsh treatment to a man who had given 25 years of his life to the army. Many an army officer much senior to him had got drunk in uniform and for three years Alexander had been through all the horrors of war. What would have upset Staff officers would have been that he got drunk with n.c.o.s rather than other officers. Today we can understand how, under the pressures he had suffered, and after 21 years as a ranker he would have been far happier with the company of senior n.c.o.s of his own class rather than the young public school officers around him. The class system was still strong in those days and both Staff officers and those running the bases and the War Office would have looked down on ranker officers, often referred to as “temporary gentlemen”, however good they were at their job. The original sentence of the Court was that he was to be Cashiered. This was a most severe punishment and meant that on return to civilian life he would not have been able to work in any part of the Civil Service, even as a postman. He would have lost his job at the Royal Courts of Justice in London and would not have been able to join the Territorial Army after the war. The Commander-in-Chief, Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, saw this and commuted the sentence to the lesser one of being dismissed the service.

To discover the attitude of Staff officers, we have to look no further than the writings of Douglas Jerrold, a great friend of one of our most notable – and controversial – Frontiersmen, Hugh Pollard. Jerrold fought with the Royal Naval Division both at Gallipoli and in France and wrote the history of the Royal Naval Division in 1922.

“I remember meeting, in a pleasant little village behind Abbeville in 1916….. a charming young man, immaculately dressed and wearing the insignia of a famous regiment and several decorations. I asked him, over a drink, what he was, and was told, ‘Oh, I’m the D.L.O.’ I showed my ignorance evidently in my face. ‘Divisional Laundry Officer,’ he explained, with quiet pride, but without a touch of hauteur.”1

Writing about the Lens area, Jerrold expressed the opinion,

“Too many men, too many officers, far too many generals, and a thousand times too many jacks-in-office, R.T.O.’s. Town Majors, A.P.M.’s, Traffic Control Officers, Laundry Officers, Liaison Officers, Railway Experts and endless seas of mud.”2

In an article in the “Pall Mall Gazette” Jerrold told of his acute embarrassment,

“…when two young public-school boys of eighteen who had served with my battalion in the ranks through the Gallipoli campaign were suddenly commissioned. The picture of harassed adjutants crying out for young public-school cricketers was, I pointed out with some acerbity, just moonshine. What were wanted at the front were man with experience in dealing with other men; men with initiative, capable of taking decisions on their own…”3

What the army needed was more Alexanders, even if they did break the rules at times, rather than eighteen year old public schoolboys as Second Lieutenants.

There is something of a mystery regarding what happened to Alexander after he was dismissed. What seems unbelievable to us is that the desk-bound officers at the War Office seriously discussed whether he should be stripped of his M.C.. Eventually they decided that his offence was not sufficiently serious. Such a request would have had to be made to the Palace and the King would have been most displeased if he had been asked to strip a man of his gallantry award for mere drunkenness. In fact the War Office did prepare a request the King to have him stripped of his Military Cross. This went first to the then Secretary of State for the War Office, one Winston Churchill. Churchill had served at the Front and knew his soldiers. His response to the War Office was somewhat terse and very much to the point:

“A Military Cross won for gallantry should not be forfeited for any offence which is not of a criminal nature.”4

Field Gun

By 1918 the call-up age had been extended and at 44 Alexander became due for this. He could not be traced but was believed to be working in Wales in what was termed a “controlled establishment” and this made him exempt. Alexander claimed that he had in fact re-enlisted and served as a private soldier in Russia, but this could not be substantiated. After the War he enlisted in the 7th London Brigade R.F.A. (T.A.) and in April 1920 he was made Battery Sergeant Major. Again the War Office had to be consulted as to whether it was permitted for a man who had been dismissed as an officer to serve as an n.c.o. in the T.A.. After much discussion over many months, in January 1922 the desk-bound officers in the War Office decided that this was indeed permitted and also that he would be allowed to wear the ribbon of his M.C. on his uniform. It would have been most unusual for a B.S.M. to be seen on parade wearing the M.C. ribbon. When he retired from the T.A. he was enlisted with alacrity by the Legion of Frontiersmen as the Legion’s R.S.M.-in-Chief. We know he was still serving in 1936, but have not discovered the date of his death.

The reader can see from the above that we have much still to discover about him. It is currently not known what happened to his M.C. and other medals, although most came up for auction in 2017. They are not in the Royal Artillery Museum. This is a most human story of a true Frontiersman and it is appropriate to commemorate him one hundred years after the end of a war in which he fought with great bravery and dedication.

The photograph shows the principal British field gun used by the Royal Field Artillery throughout the First War, the 18-pounder covering a canal crossing in 1918. The heavier pieces were manned by the Royal Garrison Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery accompanied the cavalry. (details from “The World War One Source Book” by Philip J. Haythornthwaite Arms & Armour Press 1992)

1 Douglas Jerrold “Georgian Adventure” (1937) p111
2 Ibid p175
3 Ibid p 199-200
4 The National Archives WO 339/22795

© 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
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