Topic April / May 2020. The Legion has in recent years understandably concentrated with pride on their Patron, the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma. It must not be forgotten that she would not accept the position of President, a long-standing position held by some very distinguished army generals, but she wished to be the Patron. A wise choice. It is time to look particularly at two post-war Legion Presidents whose contribution to the Legion must not be forgotten.
When Major-General Lord Loch accepted the position of President in 1923, he started twenty years of active and valuable service to the Legion. When the rift began between HQ and Canadian Division just before WW2, Lord Loch was horrified. He promised that as soon as the war was over he would personally travel over to Canada and sort out the problem. Unfortunately he died during the war and it was not possible to find and appoint a new President. In addition to Lord Loch as President, in the 1930s the Legion acquired some unofficial local Patrons, such as the 17th Earl of Derby for the Lancashire Frontiersmen and the 6th Earl of Harewood in Yorkshire. Lord Harewood allowed the Frontiersmen to use part of Harewood Park and also arranged for them to have access to Harewood Barracks in Leeds. The Leeds Frontiersmen were given permission to use the City of Leeds Coat of Arms on their pennant. As can be seen in the photograph, Lord Harewood attended some Frontiersmen dinners and would also inspect them at the annual parade. His wife was Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, so Lord Harewood was the brother-in-law of King George VI. Another, if minor, link to the British Royal family.
When Colonel Dunn took over as Cdt-General after the war he did his best to find another President, but it was not until 1955 that Major-General Sir Eric Stanley Girdwood, KBE, CB, CMG (1876–1963) agreed to become President, and proved an active and enthusiastic one until his death. A Boer War veteran and one-time Colonel of the Cameronians he well understood the principles of the Legion. From 1927 to 1931 he was Commandant of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. One of the officer cadets this time was David Niven, the film actor. In his autobiography “The Moon’s a Balloon”, Niven told a story of Girdwood which showed that the General had the sense of humour that would appeal to the Frontiersmen. When Niven was in the Intermediate Term he, with another officer cadet Dick Hobson, was given the prestigious position of Commandant’s Orderly for six months. On Sundays they breakfasted with the General and afterwards Niven and Hobson waited in the garden proudly holding silver sticks on which were engraved the names of a hundred years of Commandant’s Orderlies. Across their chests were white belts, on the back of which between their shoulder blades were Victorian silver message boxes. So many cadets asked Niven what was in the boxes, which should in fact have been empty, that he decided to give them something to look at if they investigated. So, he installed a pack of Woodbine cigarettes, a box of Swan Vestas matches, a roll of toilet paper – and a pack of ten condoms. Thereafter, when other cadets enquired he told them “Commandant’s personal supplies” and invited them to take a look. Niven considered that on long Sunday morning inspections when the Commandant was accompanied by some royalty or other extremely important personage the cadets would appreciate that the inspection was preceded by this unusual cargo. One summer morning the Commandant announced that it was time he inspected his two orderlies. Both were confident that they were immaculately turned out until General Girdwood walked round the back of Dick Hobson and opened his message box. By this time the joke of the box had long been forgotten until the General moved behind Niven and began to open his box. Dick Hobson was with difficulty controlling his desire to laugh. Niven thought his military career was about to end before it had even started.
I sensed him rustling about among its horrible contents – Woodbines, matches, lavatory paper and French letters…After an eternity, Major-General Sir Eric Girdwood stood before me…’Niven,’ he said, ‘I had heard about that…thank you very much…you are very considerate…’
It was never referred to again, but immediately after Church Parade that day I cleared out my Message Box. ¹
The attitude of Major-General Sir Eric Girdwood to those serving under him shows that he was to become a most successful President for the Frontiersmen.
After the death of General Girdwood, the Legion had no true President for a number of years. Col. Dunn hung on to his position as Cdt-General even when in failing health and in a retirement home. The Legion officers who had been its backbone for some years were also failing in health and dying. The Legion was entering one of its all-too-common periods of internal strife. There was a power struggle between the north and south of England as to where the headquarters should be situated. Overseas Commands such as Canada and particularly New Zealand, which was an example of stability, looked on in horror. For a brief period Colonel Raymond Gordon, whose official address at the time was Royal Mews, Hampton Court, accepted the position of President. He wrote that he had been connected with the Legion since 1928 and was also “businessman and Chairman of several Companies…”² It has so far not been possible to trace Colonel Gordon’s military career or details of his Frontiersmen service. It is not known whether the rank he used was an army one or one bestowed by the Legion. After a few years of frustration he resigned as President to concentrate on his highly successful Girl Horse Rangers, which still exists today. Gordon formed the Girl Horse Rangers in 1954 based at a stable he owned in Shepperton, Middlesex. He realised that many girls were mad on horses but did not have the money to ride. For a weekly payment the girls could ride, but also helped care for them. The Rangers were uniformed and in the early days rather militaristic, which did not please everyone. H.R.H. Princess Margaret, who knew Gordon well, became Patron of the Girl Horse Rangers and a number of Frontiersmen helped with their training, which had some similarities to the mounted Frontiersmen. A British Pathe film of 1959, which can be seen online, shows the Frontiersmen and particularly Philip Shoosmith (in later years to become Commandant-General) helping the girls with horsemanship.
The internal battles resulted in the Legion becoming very much London-centred and over the years the once strong northern units faded badly. The smartest Frontiersmen were recruited into the Legion’s Ceremonial Squadron, which attracted good reports and was regularly in demand.
Another Legion officer, Gordon W.H.Woods was an employee at Hampton Court Palace and he brought the Legion of Frontiersmen to the attention of Major-General Sir Rodney Moore, (Sir James Newton Moore G.C.V.O., K.C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O. (1905-1985)) Chief Steward of Hampton Court Palace, who had been Aide-de-Camp General to H.M. The Queen and was a Gentleman Usher to the Royal Household.
“He told me that he remembers as a boy his father, the late Major-General Sir Newton Moore, K.C.M.G., going off to Legion meetings in Australia, all dressed up, and always talking about it. He supposes his father’s interest was first aroused as he was Commander of an Australian (Cavalry) Volunteer Regiment,” ³
In the same letter about the dining-in of General Moore as the new President, Woods wrote that the General was “…also a personal friend to Her Majesty who comes here [the Connaught Rooms] to private dinner with him”.
Gordon Woods had been given the position of Records Officer and Publicity Officer, duties which he carried out conscientiously and with great success. No record has yet been found of his military service. He is believed to have been ex-R.A.F., but was certainly ex-R.A.A.F.. He was not helped in his task by being fed inaccurate information on Legion history, much of which was being passed by word of mouth. The Legion has always claimed that much of their records were destroyed in the bombing of London in WW2. This is not true. Their HQ at that time at 21 Bedford Street was indeed damaged by bombing, but:
You will be glad to hear that although the front portion of the building in which Imperial Headquarters is situated was blown out by blast, this office is so far intact and we are able to carry on. We are however sometimes prevented from entering the street or building by the presence of time bombs so that office work is sometimes interrupted for a few days at a time.
Harry Erswell, who wrote this to a Frontiersman in Canada, was a retired senior Indian Army Warrant Officer and a widower. He lived in Hornchurch but travelled into London every day to run the Headquarters office for the Legion. After he had finished his day’s duties for the Frontiersmen he served as an Air Raid Warden. Nobody living in the London area during the Blitz got much sleep.
After the war, the Frontiersmen were given the use of Territorial Army Centres, first at Farringdon Road, then at Offord Road. When the army decided to no longer give the Frontiersmen a home, they were granted the use of Amicale, the Anglo-Belgian Club then in Belgrave Square, as their Headquarters. All these moves obviously made it difficult to keep control of Legion property. This was traditionally the duty of the Records Officer. The Legion backbone of long-serving officers was beginning to crumble as age and ill-health took its toll. Decorated WW1 officer, Captain V.C. Harvey M.C., D.C.M. was followed as Records Officer by Reginald Coleman who had also been a very popular RSM-in-Chief of the Legion. Coleman’s health began to fail and he did not return from what was his final stay in hospital. Not all Frontiersmen marriages were happy ones and not all Frontiersmen wives were pleased with the time their husbands spent with the Legion. We have no idea of what upset Coleman’s widow but a frustrated Gordon Woods wrote in one internal Legion letter:
When C.H.Q. moved from the T.A. Centre at Offord Road, all documents…together with the Founder’s medals were taken by the then Records Officer to his private address, and that he died shortly after, and his widow disposed of a good deal of the Legion papers and the medals before arrangements could be made to collect them.
It has always been a puzzle for years as to what happened to Founder Roger Pocock’s medals which, with some other of his possessions, were willed to the Legion. It is extremely sad that what were some of the Legion’s most historically important assets should be thrown out or otherwise disposed of as worthless. Unfortunately the international historical importance of the Legion of Frontiersmen has not always rated highly in the order of things to many Frontiersmen who were men of action and not of words. The story of documents and assets being destroyed by family when a Frontiersman officer passed away has been told for years and attributed to more than one deceased Frontiersman officer. In fact the claim has also, without evidence, been made against the family of Gordon Woods, who spent his final years in retirement on the Isle of Man away from any Frontiersmen unit. The Legion of Frontiersmen is home to many unproved and usually unprovable stories. Many Legion archives and assets have vanished over the years during the moves of Headquarters. A late Frontiersman who joined the Colour Squadron in 1957 recalled reading through the Minutes Book of Headquarters meetings going right back to the founding days. That is one of many important documents that has been lost without trace.
Like an earlier Legion President, Lord Loch, Sir Rodney Moore was also a Grenadier Guardsman. He had a successful career, serving with the Guards Armoured Division and commanding the 2nd Battalion in WW2. He also served with the British Army of the Rhine and in Malaya. For a period he commanded the Household Brigade and London District. He was an enthusiastic supporter at a time when the Legion was a welcome member of the Reserve Forces Association and appeared at many Army shows, including Aldershot. He resigned in 1983 due to ill-health and was followed by the long and successful Patronage of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma.
Although some of his press releases contained inaccurate stories of Legion history, it should never be forgotten that Gordon Woods was a great servant to the Frontiersmen for some years and managed to arrange for them to be involved in a number of prestigious events: for example in 1975 “when the Legion had the honour of leading the Lord Mayor’s Procession with a mounted detachment carrying the Guidons of St. George’s Cross and the Legion of Frontiersmen Colour, and riding ahead of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers of which the Legion formed the 25th (Frontiersmen) Battalion in 1915 for service in East Africa and collected [sic] a Victoria Cross, two D.S.O.’s and twelve D.C.M.’s [sic]”
Thus wrote Woods in a letter in 1977 to Air Commodore Vannech congratulating him on becoming Lord Mayor of London.
Both Sir Eric Girdwood and Sir Raymond Moore were men of distinguished military careers who also had many important contacts and they promoted the Legion and its values widely during their time as Presidents of the Legion of Frontiersmen.
¹ David Niven “The Moon’s a Balloon” (Hamish Hamilton, 1971) p.60
² Raymond Gordon to George Whalley, Northern Command, 30 December 1968, letter in LOF Archives at Peel Special Archives and Library, University of Alberta
³ Woods to Legion Colonel Peter Fitchett 27 October 1976, letter in LOF Archives at Peel Special Archives and Library, University of Alberta
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.