Topic August/September 2018. There will be many commemorations and countless books about the centenary of the end of the First War – the Great War – the “war to end all wars”. In this topic page we will take a look at the sacrifice of Frontiersmen in the service of what was then King and Empire and the extraordinary demonstrations of patriotism and service shown by Frontiersmen, many of whom paid the final sacrifice. At every Frontiersmen dinner round the world since the 1920s, the toast after that of “The King” or “The Queen” has always been “The Nine Thousand”. That has always been the Legion’s claim of the number of Frontiersmen who gave their lives to King and Empire, now the Commonwealth. The first recorded reference to “the nine thousand” that has been discovered is in the May 1922 “Frontiersman” magazine, although various other numbers appeared earlier than this in newspapers, for example, as quoted elsewhere on this site:
J. Suffern, captain of the New South Wales command stated that: “…out of the 13,500 members over 12,000 have been on active service and of this number nearly 6000, or 50%, have been killed or incapacitated by wounds or sickness.” Capt. J. Suffern also commented: “Here in New South Wales were 350 members on active service.” (SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, “The Frontiersmen… 50 Per Cent Casualties”, page 05, 25 August 1919.)
For years the Frontiersmen had been certain that war with German was inevitable. As soon as war was declared a trickle of Frontiersmen, which soon turned into a flood, arrived from all round the world at the little office on the top floor of 6 Adam Street London. The steady stream of rough, often Colonial, men dressed not in London clothes but in practical Colonial garb, wending their way down Adam Street and up the narrow staircase to the Frontiersmen office would certainly have raised eyebrows in this well-to-do part of London.
…every Frontiersman was ready for the call to arms, and they fought in every theatre of the war. Many returned to the United Kingdom to join the Forces. 100 from China and 20 more from South America, all at their own expense. Many worked their passage home in various ways…
Over 9000 gave their lives in the great struggle…
Some 1,500 Australian and New Zealand Frontiersmen died with the Anzacs in Gallipoli.
The South African members served with the Rand Rifles.”
(Major J. Dowd’s 1951 history booklet)
Not only were Frontiersmen from Winnipeg, Canada, making their way to Valcartier Camp, but according to the “Dundee Courier”: “Several impatient members of the Winnipeg Legion of Frontiersmen turned up in London on the chance of being included in an early draft for France.” These were among many Frontiersmen who worked their passage across the Atlantic. Although the War Office would not initially grant Driscoll a named Frontiersmen unit, these men with their great skills in mastering horses were of inestimable value horse-breaking at Shirehampton and Swaythling.
The “Calgary Daily Herald” of October 5th 1914 reported that 50 Frontiersmen who had grown tired of waiting to be called into active service had made their own way to London and presented themselves at the War Office. According to the newspaper they eventually got to see Kitchener himself and having had their service accepted reported that: “We are leaving for Southampton in a day or two.” One can assume that they had been sent to the Remounts.
In August 1914, Lt.-Col. Driscoll wrote a most illuminating letter to Fred Storey, who commanded the Belfast sub-unit:
Before the declaration of war, the offer of one thousand picked men for serving anywhere on earth was promptly acknowledged by the Army Council. After the war was declared a second communication was received from the War Office thanking the Legion for their patriotic offer, but informing them that until the young force of 100,000 being raised by Earl Kitchener was complete nothing further would be done regarding the raising of extra regiments for the front. The offer still being with the War Office, members of the Legion will have to wait orders patiently like good soldiers. Since the outbreak of war, numerous cables have arrived from our commands all over the earth offering to pay their own expenses and join us in England. It has been very touching to be unable to cable back to them to join their comrades in England. However this may come at any time. The recruiting for the Legion all over England has been remarkable. In London alone some 5,000 men of the very best stamp have been registered at headquarters, so that we are able to offer to the War Office in England alone at least six mounted or dismounted regiments of the finest fighting men in the world outside the British Army. Yesterday a cable was sent from the Governor of Newfoundland to the Foreign Office asking for permission from the Legion of Frontiersmen headquarters to permit one hundred of the Legion of Frontiersmen in Labrador and Newfoundland to join the Canadian expeditionary force. Colonel Driscoll desires all members of the Legion to be patient and to go on diligently preparing themselves for active service, so that if the country needs them they shall be more than ever prepared to go to the front without delay. Colonel Driscoll endeavoured to supply one or more regiments to Earl Kitchener’s 100,000 men, but was informed that only young men of a certain age would be accepted. The average Legion age is above this. Many hundreds of members of the Legion have joined various military departments with the full and unqualified approval of headquarters.
The Argentine Sub-Unit of the Legion of Frontiersmen, London Command, was officially constituted on November 1st 1912, the organising officer was Lieut E. W. Benson, LF. When war appeared inevitable, the Sub-Unit cabled to England on the 31st July 1914, offering their services to the British Empire for any part of the world, and undertook to equip themselves completely and be fully mounted. At that time there were twenty-seven members on the nominal roll, Malcolm Pulbrook being Organising Secretary, and of these men twenty-three travelled to England before the end of the year to join up, the majority sailing in August and September 1914. The remaining members were at that time debarred on account of age. As most of the men had seen active service in some part or other of the world, and were fully qualified in drill and shooting, they were rapidly taken into the army, and before the close of 1914, several of them were at the front.
Pulbrook served as a driver in the Royal Engineers and E. W. Benson as a Lieutenant in the Bedfordshire Regt, attached to the RE Signals. He was awarded the Military Cross.
Although we have so many accounts of the remarkable patriotism and eagerness to serve shown by Frontiersmen all round the world there were examples of Frenchmen showing equal dedication. The “Sheffield Telegraph” told of two French reservists who were working as trappers on the Mackenzie River some 1300 miles from the furthest north-west railroad in Canada. By September 30th 1914 they had tramped towing a sled to Fort Chipewayan on Lake Athabasca where a Canadian Mounted Police officer gave them a letter of explanation as to why they were so late reporting for duty to present when they reached France. They still had another 700 miles to walk through the Canadian winter before they reached a railroad.
Legion Major J. Dowd wrote a reasonably accurate brief history booklet of the Legion in 1951 with only a small number of inaccuracies. He had the advantage of having served for many years and met many of the original members:
No Corps in the world possesses the elements of adventure in so great a degree as the Legion of Frontiersmen nor carries so many decorations for Active Service and Valour.
The Legion has gathered into its ranks men whose collective adventures in all parts of the world would make as thrilling and absorbing reading as any volume of fact and fiction ever published.
Major-General Sir Alfred Turner inspected the Legion on parade on Victoria Embankment in London in 1914 and is recorded during that year as a member of the Executive Council. After the inspection he wrote to Lt-Colonel Driscoll:
…The value of a trained body of soldiers, a large number of whom have served in one or more campaigns, men who are in a very respectable position in life, and who, out of feelings of pure patriotism, enrol themselves for the service of the Empire, cannot be too highly estimated, and they deserve every possible recognition and encouragement from the State. The manner in which they stood on parade, the way in which they held themselves and marched, showed that they had not forgotten their former military training.”
This parade, some 350 strong, was held about nine weeks before the start of the War. not only of members from all round Britain, but also representatives from Malta, Persia, Calcutta, Nigeria, Australia, the Federated Malay States and other countries, all of whom had also attended the previous day’s Legion A.G.M..
When the War Office called for a further inspection, this time on the very hot Sunday 7th September, the Frontiersmen were inspected in London by General Bethune, another South African veteran. About seven hundred of them marched from the Embankment to Vincent Square to be inspected. It would have been more impressive had Driscoll been able to raise his promised two thousand, but his defence was that these were mainly men who lived in or near London. Some of the Manchester Troop were there, also the Lord Mayor of Manchester. According to a writer in “The Sketch”, “..what a magnificent set of fellows they are…” The brief extract from Bethune’s report to Kitchener surviving in War Office files stated that the men were “typical toughs who would do most excellent work as irregulars”. This statement quoted in War Office files out of the context of the full report sounds critical of the quality of the men, but it should probably be read the other way, that the Frontiersmen would be suitable for the way they wished to serve. There can be no doubt that Frontiersmen were often tough characters and some were “known to the police”. In 1919 the “Manchester Guardian” told of an incident in 1915 when the police were searching for a wanted man. It was suggested that the man might have enlisted in 25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) to gain a swift passage out of the country. A plain-clothes policeman was sent from Manchester to London to see if he could identify the man among Driscoll’s troops preparing to entrain for their ship. Asked whether he had found his wanted man, the policeman replied “No, but I recognised all the others”. Possibly true or possibly false, but the story does show that however rough and tough these men were, they remained intensely patriotic. It is difficult for us, over a century later, to comprehend the attitude of these men. The most extreme case is that of fifty-four year old Edgar Keeling, a Manchester Frontiersmen. He was desperate to re-enlist, but although he was an expert rifle shot and known as a sober and respectable man, neither was he allowed due to his age to go with the Manchester Frontiersmen to Belgium nor was he accepted by any army unit. He was so depressed that he could not fight for his country that he committed suicide with his old service rifle which he had somehow retained.
If we go forward to 1939, although Frontiersmen were willing to fight for their country, it was with a grim determination to defeat Fascist Germany. The enthusiasm which brought men from all over the world to enlist in 1914 was not there. After the First War many survivors had moved with their families to countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, taking up nationality. As we have pointed out in previous items on gas warfare training the First War had only ended some twenty-one years earlier, well within memory. Most families had lost family members. In the final years before the start of the Second War the Territorial Army was busy recruiting and actively seeking out the younger Frontiersmen as they would already have been well-trained. Senior army officers from the First War were happy to serve as rank and file Frontiersmen and it was often the younger men who were elected as officers. Ernest F. Meacock, a Second Lieutenant in the Frontiersmen, was sought out by the Territorials and commissioned. He wrote that he had to be reminded by his sergeant that “The order, sir, is ‘Squad!’, not ‘Frontiersmen!'”.
What of today? The world has changed beyond recognition and there is a strong movement against becoming involved in any war or conflict in any country. In some countries there is a requirement for military training by the young, but not in much of the western world. Few of the young have any idea of military life and nor would they care to. Armed conflict relies heavily on computers. Those Frontiersmen who rushed to Britain in 1914 to serve would be absolutely astonished to see the world well over a hundred years later. As the famous L.P. Hartley quotation goes:
The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.
There are two dedicated Frontiersmen Memorials around the world. One is in Alberta, Canada and the other in New Zealand. The plaque on the New Zealand Memorial reads:
Erected to the memory of the 9000 members of the Legion of Frontiersmen who gave their lives in the Great War 1914 – 1918. And of those gallant comrades who fell in freedom’s cause in World War II 1939 – 1945. We Shall Remember them”
The Frontiersmen will always carry on raising a glass to “The Nine Thousand”.
Photographs © Legion of Frontiersmen CMO archives. Photograph of New Zealand Memorial courtesy the late Bruce Fuller, Fenreach Trust
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.