Topic Feb / Mar 2021. In our last topic page we looked at the Frontiersmen in 1938, the year before the Second World War was declared. This time we look back at 1913, the year before the First World War. Reading both these topics the thought cannot be erased that perhaps in both cases the Frontiersmen spent a lot of time training for the previous wars and not the one to come. In 1938 much effort was expended on anti-gas warfare which – fortunately – was not to be needed. The Legion also still insisted that every recruit should be able to ride a horse. Excellent for ceremonial purposes, but the horse was only to have a limited use in the coming Second World War. As has been written in an earlier 2020 topic, the Frontiersmen did have the opportunity to involve themselves in preparations for more modern warfare, but declined: The Lost Squadron
In 1913, although many Squadrons had a cyclists unit and some a motor section involving cars and motor-cycles, the main centre of attention was the horse. Admittedly, motorised transport was confined to the financially well-off. The main feature of Frontiersmen training was in scouting and to some extent guerilla warfare. They were trying to improve on the skills learned with difficulty on the veldts of Southern Africa. When war was declared Driscoll pestered the War Office to be allowed to take his Frontiersmen across the Channel and harass and destroy the German lines of communication. Had it been allowed early enough it just might have worked to some extent, although that has to be unlikely. Driscoll’s fighting had been carried out in Burma and South Africa. Neither he nor, according to available Legion records, any of his trusted senior men had any knowledge of the terrain in Belgium, which was totally different and quite extensively farmed.. The men of his Maritime Command had considerable knowledge of the coast the other side of the English Channel, but the Frontiersmen would have been fighting inland and with very few places to hide after any episode of guerilla warfare. The War Office view of warfare did not include what would virtually have been suicide squads of guerillas. By early 1915 when the War Office were prepared to look at whether they could use the Frontiersmen, war in Europe had become a far more static affair. The Frontiersmen had proved of great value in the last months of 1914 using their specialist skills of handling and breaking in horses in the Remount Depots. Kitchener was right in using those exceptional skills of the Frontiersmen learned in Canada, U.S.A., Brazil, and Argentine the way that he did:
Those well-to-do Frontiersmen whom owned motor-cycles took their own machines across the Channel and served as despatch riders. A most interesting book on that subject is “A Motorcycle Courier in the Great War” by Captain W.H.L. Watson. (Pen & Sword, 2013). Many of these upper-class young motorcyclists were commissioned after a period of time when the army had become organised and it no longer needed these volunteers with their own machines.
In 1913 training was being carried out every week and as often as possible. Every Frontiersman was expected to have his own copy of The Frontiersman’s Pocket Book ¹ and that was their training handbook. The training was very similar in all countries, although climates were notably different. The Vancouver Command reported on a night exercise carried out the previous November when they visited the Sea Side Park Hotel. After a comforting supper the hotel was placed out of bounds and the men had to find a sleeping place outside. Guards were mounted. All went well except for one man “who took an involuntary bath in the chilly waters of Howe Sound and had to be taken off duty and dried out by his sympathetic comrades”. Unfortunately the next day (Sunday) dawned very wet, so much so that the men could not go out on pathfinding duty.
Maritime Sections were not only successful on the east coast of England. They were set up with great enthusiasm in Australia and New Zealand. Travel around the world was by sea and many a Frontiersman who could not afford a fare had worked their passage across the world. There were a number who were ships’ officers, such as Ernest Hyatt.
Captain Archer, the organising officer of the Maritime Section of Vancouver Command called on and addressed a Frontiersmen meeting when in Auckland.
He told of how the idea had caught on in Canada, and spoke of the magnificent opportunity for a maritime branch in Auckland, where ships from all parts of the world continually come and go…Captain Archer pointed out that the average Canadian, like the average New Zealander, was a born frontiersman. In both countries the men, from boyhood, learned to shift for themselves, learned to hunt for food, to find their way across trackless country, to blaze a trail in the forest, to bridge streams, and to make a camp. They were scouts, trackers, hunters, and explorers by instinct, and amongst farmers, bushmen, packers, rafters, musterers, and stock-riders in New Zealand there was some of the finest material in the world for a guerilla force. He offered to instruct and train a Maxim gun squad. It is hardly necessary to add that the boys gave Captain Archer a cordial vote of thanks.
Yes, indeed, they were the ‘finest material for a guerilla force’, but that was not what they were going to be asked to do in France, Belgium and to a greater extent for the Australians and New Zealanders, at Gallipoli. That they performed so bravely did show that they were indeed all of the ‘finest material”.
A good example of how the Legion trained and performed in Britain can be seen from the Nottinghamshire Squadrons of the North Midland Command who put on public displays throughout the summer of 1913 at events such as the Sheffield Agricultural Show and the Beeston Gymkhana. As an aside, it is interesting that the Notts. Squadrons followed Legion principles and saw no need for a Legion officer. Every Troop was commanded by a Sergeant and the two Squadrons were under the command of an R.S.M.. On 24th July they joined in an exercise with H Company of the 6th Bn. North Staffordshire Regt. who:
…threw out a line of outposts to cover a main body in Burton-on-Trent, and “A” Troop of the Burton Squadron L.F. represented the enemies’ scouts, whose mission was to get through and obtain information on the main body.
The Frontiersmen found the roads well watched. Two members got through in the bottom of a milk cart without being challenged, and four more got through on foot across country. The remaining three made a special effort to get through across country leading their horses.
They had no difficulty in locating the sentries without being seen,but, owing to the necessity of frequently retracing their steps to avoid damaging crops, they had not sufficient time to get through.
The experience gained is that the roads are well watched. Therefore, to get through along the roads means stratagem or disguise. To get through across country the cover is excellent, but unless the men and horses can jump, so as to get from one farm to another, the only way, after locating the sentries, is to leave one or two men in charge of the horses and the rest go through on foot.
It is unusual to find Frontiersmen saying that their horses were a hindrance to them. When the German forces stormed through Belgium in August 1914 they took no consideration of growing crops on farms. “During the day [August 4th] as the boots and wheels and hooves of the German ranks overran villages and trampled fields of rip grain, the shooting augmented…” (“August 1914” by Barbara Tuchman, 1962, p.172) That was one difference between war and an exercise on cultivated land.
From the very start of the war the Frontiersmen were keen to be enrolled as a unit. The Frontiersmen paraded in London to be inspected by General Bethune. Many newspapers were impressed, not least “The Sportsman” of 14th September, 1914:
The Legion of Frontiersmen, who muster over a thousand in London, lined up a fortnight ago in Vincent Square. The Imperial Light Horse formed and drilled an irregular force of about 500 strong, but after the War Office had inspected them they were soon after disbanded.
The War Office has not yet given the Legion permission to go to the Front, but after interviewing Colonel Driscoll and the subsequent review in Vincent Square and nothing having happened since, they have great hopes. Of course they would be accepted as units anywhere, but they naturally wish to be together. They come from all parts of the Empire – from Siam, Newfoundland, Assam, Argentine, and everywhere. There are several late officers of the British Army serving in the ranks, and they were described as one of the finest bodies of men ever seen in London. There are many instances of men in the Legion who had previously served with other regiments, and so large a majority are old Public School boys that no apology is necessary for referring to them. They have served in many parts of the Empire. Wherever Britain has possessions there may be found a contingent of the Legion of Frontiersmen, even in the Fiji Islands.
Last year in the “B” Squadron – Battersea – of only 80 men, there were 90 medals and over 250 “bars”, and at Vincent Square it would have taken a chartered accountant all his time to count the medals and clasps. Two hundred men from Moose Jaw, I gather from the same source, have signed on with Princess Patricia’s Horse [sic] and are on their way to England.
Bethune’s report was quite favourable and he said that Driscoll had a good hold on his men who Bethune considered were typical “toughs” who could do excellent work as irregulars. Irregulars were not what Kitchener sought. So the Frontiersmen, other than those who chose to serve with other regiments, had to be satisfied with working in Remounts until the call came in early 1915 for them to serve in East Africa.
(Other than noted, quotations are from 1913 Frontiersmen magazines)
¹ The Frontiersman’s Pocket Book has been re-printed by the University of Alberta. It is available from bookshops or online direct from the University. It is highly recommended. Many sections of it still work today as a survival manual.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.