Topic February / March 2019. A brief look at some Frontiersmen characters who some might describe as eccentric.
The late, great, Patrick Moore (who was also a Frontiersman) was always fascinated by what might be called eccentrics by some, but who he preferred to call “Independent Thinkers”.
“The Independent Thinker is a genuine, well-meaning person, who is not hidebound by convention, and who is always ready to strike out on a line of his own…”¹
The Legion of Frontiersmen has been the natural home for the independent thinker and we have seen many times when the independent thoughts and ideas they produced were either ahead of their time or not acceptable to their military or official masters.
Lieutenant A.Harold Reed, an officer of 25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) was a man of considerable bulk weighing some 300lb and known to the troops with army humour as ‘Baby’ Reed. He had enjoyed an adventurous life as what might today be considered a mercenary. He had fought in the 1898 Greco-Turkish War, the South African War, with the Mexican forces from 1910 to 1912 and then in the Honduras army. He had been originally commissioned and posted to the Shropshire Light Infantry, a strange posting indeed. The Colonel took one look at his size and gazetted him out as “appearance unfavourable”. Lt.Col. Driscoll saw no problem and saw his experiences as an advantage and took him on to command his Stokes Mortar Battery. Reed decided that he could help solve the problem of the lack of guns transportable by just a few men. He was permitted the use of the Uganda Railway and a short film of a demonstration of his gun in front of senior officers is held at the Imperial War Museum. The projectile did travel some distance, but it exploded the barrel on its way as the quality of metal was not strong enough. Reed was not permitted to continue working on his invention. ²
Before the First War Legion Lieut. Clifton West was another Frontiersman who fancied himself as an inventor. Born in Rochester, Kent, in 1879, West had served in the Army Service Corps in South Africa and had been one of those besieged at Ladysmith. For some years after the War, Clifton West worked as a fishmonger at Poole on the Dorset coast, eventually selling his business and moving to London. In 1912 he was appointed organising officer for the Poole sub-unit of the Legion of Frontiersmen. It is not apparent what other life experiences, if any, gave him qualifications as an inventor, but in 1913 paragraphs appeared in a number of newspapers reporting that he had invented a new type of projectile. Zeppelins had caused considerable shock and trepidation among the British public and there were discussions about how attacking Zeppelins could be brought down.
“The weapon is fitted internally with radiating steel propeller blades, which are released automatically on leaving a gun. On coming into contact with the inflated sides of a dirigible, large openings are rent by the propeller blades, so that the hydrogen is bound to escape and cause the destruction of the airship. From the moment of its leaving the mouth of the gun the projectile is in action ready to ignite any hydrogen or gas through which it may pass. The projectiles are non-explosive and are quite harmless before being fired. Furthermore it is claimed that they offer a minimum amount of damage when returning to earth.” ³
Clifton West claimed that each projectile would pass through the air with a tail of fire like a comet. The igniting of the gas would be as simple as the way in which a gas cooker was then lit, presumably by a flint lighter. The propeller blades would not spin but only present a knife edge to the air, causing little resistance. He seems to have overlooked the fact that the projectile itself would be spinning as it would have to be fired from a rifled barrel to obtain the distance. In 1914 the newspapers again ran a version of the story, but this time our inventor claimed that the War Office were interested and that he had also received an approach from the German company Krupps. Nothing more seems to have been heard of Clifton West and no further mention in Frontiersmen magazines. It is believed that he may have died in 1915 with his invention still at the planning stage. Anyone with a school education in science can see the problems with West’s invention, but as Patrick Moore wrote, the Independent Thinker “…makes other people concentrate hard; and from this, nothing but good can emerge”. ⁴
Edward Knoblock was a man whose life was interesting and intriguing rather than full of excitement. He saw his share of danger, although he chose to write about very few of such events in his life. He was an American who was born in New York in 1874 and who died in 1945. Roger Pocock knew him through his sister Lena Ashwell and the Edwardian London stage set. They often met and Pocock recruited him into the Legion of Frontiersmen. Lena Ashwell managed and starred in Knoblock plays, the plots of which would be considered today as too intense even for television dramas although Edwardian theatre audiences loved them.
In 1916 Knoblock was introduced to S.I.S. intelligence branch under Smith-Cumming (C) by Somerset Maugham. He was promised a commission in the RNVR, but it was discovered that, as an American citizen, he was ineligible although in 1915 that did not stop Northrup McMillan getting a commission in the 25th Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). Instead, a commission for Knoblock in the RNAS was suggested, but no sooner was the uniform bought than it had to be changed to an army General Service commission as an intelligence officer. He served for a while in Switzerland, but was then sent to the Mediterranean to serve with Compton Mackenzie. It was decided that it was best to take all the uniforms, including both naval and military swords. Compton Mackenzie dedicated one of his books “Aegean Memories” to Knoblock, who was his lifelong friend. In 1917 Knoblock suffered a severe bout of dysentery and was invalided home. After a period working in Smith-Cumming’s offices, he went to France working from an SIS out-station in the French Alps. He returned to civilian life in 1919, but told Smith-Cumming that he would have liked to stay in SIS:
“One doesn’t have to think. You do the thinking for us. We just obey orders. That’s the beauty of the service. I wish I could remain in it for the rest of my life.” ⁵
Knoblock remained a confirmed bachelor and very theatrical. There is a story of him going to lunch with actor Sir John Gielgud, who was utterly forgetful about names. A man approached them at lunch, nodded to Gielgud and moved on. “Thank Heaven”, said Gielgud, “I thought he might be that crashing bore Eddie Knoblock.”
“But I am Eddie Knoblock” commented Knoblock. “Oh,” said Gielgud, thinking wildly for an explanation, “I meant the other Eddie Knoblock”. ⁶
Knoblock’s most famous play was “Kismet”. His script was eventually turned into a Broadway musical in America, using the music of Borodin, and was later made into a 1955 film musical, starring Howard Keel, Ann Blyth and Vic Damone. An earlier 1944 film version of the play starred Marlene Dietrich and Ronald Colman.
We will now move on to 1972 and a story of an enthusiastic Frontiersman who, to avoid any delayed embarrassment, we will just call John. John lived at a comfortable address in London and from the start was a keen Frontiersman and also a royalist, particularly attracted to Princess Anne. He had an idea, which unfortunately he did not pass before senior Frontiersmen before acting on it. We quote from a Legion letter in a disciplinary file:
“Please request from the above individual a full and detailed report to you of a private enterprise in uniform in which he recently engaged himself according to his own semi-coherent account, laced with considerable verve and aplomb, when meeting him in the Club…
That without permission and in defiance of established regulations he donned uniform to engage himself in a private adventure.
That this extraordinary and no doubt unique adventure and feat of imagination could result in not only embarrassment for the Legion but bring disrepute on its good name.
That in furtherance of this remarkable and stupid escapade, he hired a horse in defiance of the recently published Order, in accordance with an established Regulation, that no member is allowed to ride in uniform on any occasion, official or otherwise, unless he has been certified as proficient in equitation by a qualified Riding Instructor or a member qualified by experience, he having been checked by Capt. McCausland and deemed far from proficient.
That the scheme then entailed riding to Buckingham Palace armed with a stuffed soft-goods dragon, roughly three feet long, in order to present it to Princess Anne, her name having been inscribed in gold gimp by his own fair hand on a large velvet cushion supporting the dragon.
Answers are required to the following questions; (the mind boggles at the idea of the possibility of this apparition having succeeded in proceeding down The Mall)
1. At what stage was he prevented from riding to the Palace?
2. Did he then proceed by taxi?
3. What were the exact circumstances of the refusal at the Palace to accept the proffered gift?
4. Does he re-affirm his claim that the Princess had previously accepted a gift from him? If so, was it made in uniform or any reference made to the Legion?…
Note: he has now presented the stuffed dragon to the Royal Society of St. George, who are not at all grateful. Not only is it a Welsh dragon, the Society claiming the Lion Couchant as their emblem, but they find xxxx an unbearable bore. Frankly I was too stunned to express fully my opinion and views at the time…”
When asked these questions and before disciplinary action could be started John tendered his resignation from the Legion claiming pressure of work. He shortly afterwards moved to Australia and lived there for some years.
To return to Patrick Moore: “…there are still many people who can branch out for themselves without being restricted by conventional ideas”. Over the years the Legion of Frontiersmen has attracted those who believed in thinking for themselves and not just being directed, often by those less imaginative than themselves. Sometimes they were right and sometimes wrong. Possibly it is the many occasions on which they were right that infuriated the regular military services who do not understand the constitutional entitlement that Frontiersmen had, and still have, to elect their own leaders and also to dispense with those who do not rise to their standards.
¹ Patrick Moore “Can You Speak Venusian?” Star paperback 1976 p.8 (originally David & Charles Ltd. 1972)
² Geoffrey A Pocock “One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen” Phillimore 2004 p.84
³ “Banbury Advertiser” 6th November 1913
⁴ Patrick Moore “Can You Speak Venusian” p.150
⁵ Edward Knoblock “Round the Room” Chapman & Hall 1939 p.283
⁶ This story and variations of it is repeated in many books and in obituaries for Sir John Gielgud.
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