The Frontiersman Who Took the Blame

Major Patrick Forbes

Topic October / November 2020. When King Edward VII was on the throne and the Legion of Frontiersmen was founded there were definite class barriers in Britain. In countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand class was not as strongly defined. Many of the Frontiersmen who joined in the early years had worked in the wide-open spaces and more remote lands of the world. To them, ability was far more important than class. The Legion of Frontiersmen was far in advance of British society in holding those ideas. There was an exception. The Founder, Roger Pocock, needed to gain the support of men of power and influence in the land. While such supporters considered that Pocock had introduced a great idea which would benefit Britain and its Empire, they still looked at the social class of the man. Pocock was a minor author and adventurer. He was a member of an acceptable family – but only of a minor branch – also he had the reputation of being an eccentric. There was an additional and serious problem. In 1898 he had led an expedition to the Klondyke and on this expedition a baronet, Sir Arthur Curtis, had disappeared and his body was never found. Rumours continuously circulated that Pocock had murdered Curtis for his money. Such baseless rumours had even reached the ears of King Edward.¹

2 Seton-Karr ILN

Although the first President of the Legion was Lord Lonsdale, another wealthy and influential supporter recruited by Pocock to be the first Commandant-General was Sir Henry Seton-Karr, (1853-1914). Sir Henry was a tall and imposing explorer, a “hunting, shooting and fishing” Tory “grandee” and, until 1906, a Member of Parliament. Although Driscoll was London Commandant, Pocock as Commissioner ² was responsible for the day-to-day running of the Legion worldwide. Pocock’s lack of qualifications for leadership in addition to the rumours about Sir Arthur Curtis were of concern to Seton-Karr and others of the Executive Committee. They felt that the Commissioner should be someone who had been to the “right” school, had held an army commission of suitable rank and was of the “right” class of gentleman. The idea of Roger and of those Frontiersmen who had worked in the wilder parts of the world that their leaders should be elected was not acceptable to many of the wealthy and influential men who Roger had persuaded to join the Executive Council. On February 7th 1908 Pocock recorded in his diary: “S-K [Seton-Karr] very brusque. Wanted my resignation…Told me a retired major had been found to take my place.” ³ On February 13th he wrote: “Ex[ecutive]. Council. My resignation accepted…Met Major Patrick Forbes the new Chief Ex officer.” The appointment of Major Patrick William Forbes (1861-1923) as Chief Executive Officer was somewhat surprising. Although called by the Frontiersmen the “Hero of Rhodesia”, as the commanding officer of the Shangani column he was held responsible, especially by Rhodes, for the death of Allan Wilson and his patrol. Forbes, educated at Rugby and then trained at Sandhurst, had originally been commissioned in the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons and had previously held responsible positions in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), being the first magistrate at Fort Salisbury. After the Shangani Patrol affair Forbes was given no recognition for his previous good service, but in 1895 was appointed Administrator of the territories north of the Zambesi, an impressive title but not an impressive job. At the end of the Boer War he moved to England.

18940210 P I P artist impression

During much of 1893 the newspapers were full of praise for Forbes for his part in the success of the campaign against the uprising of Lobengula and the Matabele, but a year later Forbes was given the blame for the death of Wilson and his men. Forbes was in command of the column when Major Allan Wilson (1856–93) and his men were massacred on 4 December 1893. Forbes had sent Wilson out with the Patrol, but Wilson did not strictly follow orders. Although Wilson could be held somewhat responsible for the fate of his patrol, he became a popular hero whose demise brought forth a number of heroic and imaginative paintings of the action.⁴ The only first-hand account by one of the members of the Shangani Patrol is in Frederick Burnham, Scouting on Two Continents, 158–204. Burnham was with Forbes and Wilson, and he actually joined the Canadian Division of the Legion himself when in his eighties. Burnham was a much-liked man with many friends but, as with many another Frontiersman’s accounts of his adventures, there were often doubts raised about his ability to tell the truth. According to Burnham he had left the Patrol under Wilson’s order to carry a message. A number of historians dispute this. The Victorians particularly loved to read stories of patriotic Englishmen who died fighting for Queen and Empire. The story of Wilson and the last few survivors of the Patrol singing “God Save the Queen” as they prepared for death with all their ammunition expended appealed greatly to the British public. Newspapers and magazines, not only in Britain, were full of stories – and imaginative drawings – of the event. As nobody from the Patrol survived the final stand there was scope in the papers for imagination. In later years Matabele warriors who had taken part told their stories, but as these were by now old men, some of the stories conflicted. Brief accounts of the Shangani Patrol can be seen in many publications, but the best examination of the whole story is in the detailed “Pursuit of the King” by John O’Reilly (Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo 1970), which is well worth reading.

4 18940120 Shangani P I P artist impression

In the June-September 1962 issue of “Canadian Frontiersman” magazine Pocock is quoted as saying in June 1931 that “Forbes ousted me as Commandant-General [sic] of the Legion in 1908 when German spies infiltrated our organization and worked to bring about my overthrow—oh, I served under him gladly, and without the slightest friction, we were the best of friends!” Pocock was seeing German spies everywhere, although he was far from alone in this, as is well documented. Forbes’ organisational ability in command was soon to be seen. As an example, the “Irish Times” of 11th July 1908 reported on the Frontiersmen forming part of a guard of honour to King Edward VII. Men of the Irish Command, based in Dublin, had travelled over especially to take part.

A detachment of the Irish Command, consisting of 12 rank and file, in command of Lieutenant R.P. Fortune, the staff being represented by Captain G.F. Simpson, left Dublin for Leeds on Monday last to join the Yorkshire Command in forming the guard of honour to His Majesty the King on the occasion of his State visit to Leeds. The Frontiersmen, under Major Forbes, occupied a prominent position on the Royal route, being posted at the entrance to the Great Northern Railway Station, and were loudly cheered by the citizens as they took up ground. General Oliphant, commanding the troops, complimented Major Forbes on the smart turn-out of the Frontiersmen, and, on learning that a number had volunteered from Dublin, expressed his admiration, and desired Major Forbes to convey to them that he greatly appreciated their patriotism.

We have already told the story of how Forbes was able to thwart an assassination attempt on the Portuguese Monarch (Friends in High Places).  Patrick Forbes was well known to the Portuguese. Writing for “Canadian Frontiersman” in 1941 Roger Pocock told how in November 1890:

…a report reached Forbes that a Portuguese Military Mission was in British territory, busy swearing in the native chiefs as subjects of Portugal. Forbes took nineteen troopers and rode hard for Messakessie, where he found the kraal held by five hundred native infantry. He charged through them, caught Colonel Andrada swearing in the chiefs, arrested him and his Staff Officers and sent them down as prisoners to Capetown, This lead to an international incident.

According to F.C. Selous, who had fought against the Matabele until he was wounded, it was Fort Salisbury not Capetown. A contemporary of Forbes in Rhodesia rather unkindly said that Forbes had the bravery of a bulldog and the brains of one.

Strangely, the surviving Frontiersmen magazines up to the First War make no mention of him. He rejoined the Army but, being too unfit and too old for active service, he became officer in charge of prisoner-of-war camps in Wiltshire. He retired from the army in 1916 and went to live in Salisbury Wiltshire, rather than Salisbury Rhodesia. He died in 1922 aged 61. However much blame was placed on his shoulders nobody could question his bravery and he served the Legion of Frontiersmen with the same loyalty as he always did through his life serving Queen, King, and Country.


¹ For this story see Outrider of Empire by Geoffrey A Pocock (University of Alberta Press 2008)
² The Frontiersmen have always wished to reject any rank above that of Captain, other than for those who have earned such higher rank in the army or navy. They have often used Commissioner or Commandant for senior ranks.
³ Quotations from Roger Pocock’s pocket diaries by kind permission of the Roger Pocock archive at the Bruce Peel Collections at the University of Alberta.
⁴ Illustrations of the Shangani Patrol are from the “Penny Illustrated Paper” and owed more to the imagination of the artist than to actual fact as no member of the Patrol survived the action.


© 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

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
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