Topic December 2019 / January 2020.
“The world looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is someone outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; some one strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independent of the ordinary currents of human action.”
In spite of what many imaginative Frontiersmen have claimed, Churchill was never a Frontiersman. He did know all about them from the early days and, as a soldier himself who had fought in South Africa and at the Front in the First War, he understood the Frontiersmen. He understood their ideals, their frailties and what they stood for. It was Churchill who supported Sidney Alexander against the desk-bound officers of the War Office.
(See The RSM-in-Chief )
In South Africa he had encountered the irregular forces and the Colonial troops and understood how their attitude differed from the British troops. He understood how they fought with a degree of independence. A substantial number of those who joined the early Legion of Frontiersmen had fought with the irregular units in South Africa. Their attitude of questioning orders which to them did not make sense, but also of expecting their leaders to be there by merit not accident of birth did not fit in well with the British ruling classes. The ruling classes and officers at the War Office were amazed at how quickly the idea of the Legion of Frontiersmen spread throughout the Colonies and Dominions and how fast they recruited at a time when travel and communication around the world was far slower than we expect today and information relied mainly on being passed via the Merchant Navy ships.
In late 1907 as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill visited East Africa and arrived at Nairobi. As an honoured visitor, he was met at the station by a carriage to take him through Nairobi to Government House. Even though the Legion of Frontiersmen had been in existence for less than three years East Africa already had its own Frontiersmen unit, although uniform and badges were different from what was seen in Britain. They decided to make a show and, all of the Frontiersmen having military experience, decided to provide Churchill with a mounted escort, lined up almost as a Sovereign’s Escort, for his carriage. Unfortunately, as can be seen from the photographs, many of the mounts they used were somewhat moth-eaten and they could not all carry rifles so their armament varied from rifles to elephant guns. The officer commanding was able to lead them carrying a drawn cavalry sword. Churchill must have been somewhat taken aback at what was probably his first view of the Frontiersmen in action as he was escorted by what appeared to be a band of cut-throats with military knowledge.
…Mounts were very various, some awful brutes, but, thanks to turning up early, I got a wiry South African pony which had evidently played the game before, and did not mind military music or the yells of the populace. Winston was late, unlike Royalty, and we had to stand in the sun for nearly an hour. At last he arrived, and I could not help thinking he looked a bit astonished at his reception; certainly we couldn’t have made more fuss for Royalty. His carriage went off quickly along a road lined with masses…
Many within these masses were Masai warriors.
…These men looked fine, with their long bright spears, black and white ox-hide shields, and enormous head-dresses – some of ostrich feathers, some manes of lions. We had a ride of nearly two miles through Nairobi, which was gaily decorated…up to Government House, where Winston interviewed one commander and made some sweetly complimentary remarks. We then rode back into the town, very hot and with mouths full of choking white dust – and didn’t that pint of lager taste good! ¹
Moving ahead two or three years we meet Captain Ernest Hyatt, the man who founded the Legion command in the country then known as Burma. Hyatt was a true Frontiersmen adventurer. He started his 1935 autobiography “All Over the Place”.
…Where shall I commence this story of my adventures, ranging as they do from those of a blue-water-sailor-man on all the seven seas to those of a gun-boat captain on the Tigris and Euphrates; from adventuring variously in Australia and Nigeria to chasing Esquimo murderers in the Canadian North-West.
Hyatt gained his master-mariner’s ticket, and in Burma was captain of one of the many paddle-boat steamers travelling from Rangoon to Mandalay. These shallow draught ships, built specially in Scotland for the shallow Irrawaddy River, could carry 2000 tons of freight with attached barges, or “flats”, and up to 4200 deck passengers. The famous Rudyard Kipling poem refers to the Irrawaddy Flotilla,
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
Hyatt had joined the young Legion of Frontiersmen when he was stopping in London and was determined to start a Command in Burma. The idea immediately caught on with the many English and Scots working in that country. Hyatt got a number of friends together and held an inauguration meeting in the Strand Hotel, Rangoon.
“I shall never forget it. I had put on my Legion uniform for the occasion,but it was the uniform of the London Command, made of thick, heavy material, quite unsuited for the tropical climate of Rangoon. I never felt so hot and airless in all my life. But I stuck it, and made my speech, and the meeting was a great success. At the end, we enrolled forty members. It was not long before this number was raised to two hundred and forty.
From then onwards my Legion work occupied all my spare time. It was better than any recreation in the ordinary sense. I was with a crowd of fellows who looked at life in many respects the same way as myself. We had the welfare of the Legion absolutely at heart, and it was far from being dull work.²
This shows what an extraordinary impact the Legion had on men far away from their homeland. The ideas struck an immediate chord with them. To have recruited two hundred and forty members in such a short time when western Europeans were in such a tiny minority spread out in a vast country shows what a brilliant idea Roger Pocock had brought to fruition in such a brief time. The rules were simple enough and the uniform was varied – it had to be considering the range of climates where the Frontiersmen served. Hyatt had occasion to thank his uniform of stout riding breeches and tough leather leggings and boots – when he fell into a snake pit.
The pit in question was covered in grass, and I suspected nothing until suddenly I found my feet going through. The hole was only about waist-deep, but that was deep enough, I can tell you! There was a whole party of snakes at the bottom – I don’t know how many. They were all wriggling and squirming about, and I landed squarely in the middle of them. Of all the horrible things to happen to a man! I felt the reptiles sliding over my boots and around my legs. It was lucky that I had on my uniform leggings. It was only that which saved me from being bitten…
After much struggling he managed to get a hand-hold on the edge of the pit and drag himself out.
As I got free of the hole and stood on the safe ground once more, a native came up. He looked down into the hole, and in the tone of one imparting valuable information, cried:
“Snakes down there, master!”
As if I didn’t know! ³
On another occasion the Rangoon Frontiersmen went on manoeuvres in the bush. They came back covered in leeches. The servants at the hotel they used as their base were very helpful in removing the leeches by using salt. The servants then carefully saved the leeches in matchboxes. It turned out that they were selling them to the native doctors in the town.
Such adventures never happened to the Frontiersmen in Britain.
We go forward again to 1925 and the Gold Coast, which has also changed its name and is now Ghana. It was one of those West African countries known as a White Man’s Grave due to the incidence of Yellow Fever, but as a country rich in natural deposits it attracted many an adventurer prepared to take the risk. In 1925 a few men who had joined the Legion elsewhere formed a unit in Accra. By May they had enough men to form a Troop and hold an inauguration dinner. They steadily gained more recruits, the use of some horses and a riding range. Their first public appearance in uniform was on Remembrance Day, November 11th when they paraded at the Gold Coast War Memorial and laid a wreath. They created such an impression that they gained even more recruits. On the following day the Governor of the Colony, Brigadier-General F.G. Guggisberg arrived back from leave and the Frontiersmen formed up as a guard of honour in front of the War Memorial. The Governor stopped his car and inspected the men expressing delight at their smartness. By now Accra Troop had grown into a Squadron and Guggisberg attended their annual dinner on November 20th, agreeing to accept the position of Hon. Colonel of the Gold Coast Legion of Frontiersmen. They also recruited Colonel Rose, officer commanding the Gold Coast Regiment, and Colonel Bamford, Inspector-General of Police. Again we had a British Colony whose purse strings were tightly controlled by the Colonial Office in London pleased to acquire a body of trained and disciplined men able and willing to help in an emergency, but at no cost to their exchequer.
On December 2nd the Governor’s private secretary wrote to the Legion:
…His Excellency asks me to tell you that he will in due course provide (a) an armoury with meeting room and store for the Legion; (b) one hundred rifles, two machine guns, and the necessary ammunition…
There was, of course, a condition:
…His Excellency…would like the members to remember that he cannot spend Government money on them until he receives the Secretary of State’s approval. This it is certain will be forthcoming. 4
Here, Brigadier Guggisberg was being unduly optimistic, to say the least. When he wrote to the Colonial Office, they immediately passed it on to the War Office, who were aghast. Not only this, but Edwards-Carter, completely against orders from Lord Loch, the President of the Legion, wrote on 3rd January 1929 to General Sir W. Braithwaite requesting recognition from the War Office. The General had recently inspected the Legion at its annual parade on Horse Guards Parade:
I may say that on the Gold Coast the Legion is recognised as a part of the Defence Force and the Government has supplied it with arms and machine guns… 5
The Colonial Office was to be informed that the Gold Coast authorities had been ‘indiscreet’. Officials in the Gold Coast back-pedalled furiously and only admitted to supplying the Legion with ‘twenty old rifles no longer accurate and some machine guns’.
What is also interesting that, rather than the Stetson, the Gold Coast wore the African double terai hat with khaki drill shirt-jumper, breeches and puttees. Even in full dress with the patrol jacket the hat was the same and puttees were worn rather than leather leggings. Empire headquarters in London was obviously relaxed about variations to uniform and as long as the general regulations were followed there was a considerable degree of independence allowed for units in the Colonies and Dominions.
Lord Lloyd, when High Commissioner for Egypt, which was then a rather unstable country, welcomed the support of the Egypt and Sudan Command of the Frontiersmen in dealing with disturbances. He was most upset by the attitude of the War Office. In March 1929 he wrote to Sir Austen Chamberlain, then Foreign Secretary, about the Legion:
…the Army Council maintain that they ‘do not recognise but express sympathy and take cognisance of it.’ I find it hard to seize the distinction, especially since I am aware a member of the Cabinet [Leopold Amery] is on the central organisation of the Legion and there was a recent inspection on Horse Guards Parade by the Adjutant-General. 6
Lord Lloyd was not the first, or the last, person to have been unable to “seize the distinction”. In Frontiersmen files there are also confidential letters between Lord Loch and the then Cdt-General Burchardt-Ashton about the possibility of Frontiersmen helping with problems of civil disobedience in India.
It was the independence of the Frontiersmen and especially of their many units scattered across British colonies and protectorates which made them such an unique organisation and so difficult for authority to accept. That individual independence within Frontiersmen units across the British Commonwealth and elsewhere continues to this day.
“It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it, even with the best right, but without being OBLIGED to do so, proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring beyond measure.
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
1 “The Bystander”, January 1st 1908
2 Captain Ernest Hyatt “All Over the Place” (Hurst & Blackett 1935) 103-4
3 “All Over the Place” 104-107
4 “The Frontiersman” February 1926
5 TNA Kew WO32/10427
6 TNA Kew WO32/10427
Lord Lloyd was a staunch Conservative. When the Labour Government came to power in 1929 he was replaced.
Grateful thanks are due to James Franks, University Records Archivist, University of Alberta for allowing access to Hyatt’s autobiography in their reserve stock of rare books, and to Stephen “Sticks” Gallard of Edmonton, Alberta, for carrying out the initial research.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.