Demolishing the myths.
Truth not fantasy.
Over the 107 years of the Legion of Frontiersmen, many myths, fantasies and deliberate untruths have been told about the history of the Legion. Even after all our efforts on this website at telling the truth about the past (not only the glories but ‘warts and all’) the old myths still appear in publications and websites. This is possibly because the myths can be more interesting than the truth. Even in 2012 books and articles are appearing making claims which, supported by the extensive archives held by the original Legion of Frontiersmen, we are able to demolish. Will this page stop them appearing? Probably not, because there will always be those people who enjoy telling ‘tall tales’. If we now destroy some cherished beliefs we are sorry to disappoint, but the truth is important and what you read on these pages is always evidence-backed truth.
The first myth is probably the most-repeated one, that the Legion of Frontiersmen was “officially recognised in 1906 as a branch of military intelligence”. No, it was not! A letter of 15 February 1906 from the Secretary of State for War expressed sympathy with the aims and objects of the Legion and “recognised it as a purely private organisation, in no way connected with any Department of State, but one which, should a suitable occasion arise, he might be able to utilise.” From that day the War Office and Ministry of Defence regretted the use of those two words “recognised it”. The rest of the phrase about a “purely private organisation” has been conveniently forgotten, especially by whoever it was who invented the additional “branch of military intelligence” instead of the original wording. So, the Legion of Frontiersmen is totally unofficial and independent – and none the worse for that.
An inaccuracy often quoted over the years is that Roger Pocock started the Legion assisted by Lt-Colonel Driscoll. Driscoll did not join the Legion until the autumn (fall) of 1906. He arrived in London virtually penniless following a failed commercial enterprise in Burma armed only with a letter of introduction to Pocock, who immediately took him on and gave him a paid job in the Legion. Driscoll was probably the best recruit even signed on by Pocock. How did this inaccurate claim come about? The World Flight debacle of 1923 left the Legion very much licking its wounds1 and so, when a promotional leaflet was produced it was thought wise to emphasise Driscoll, who had a great war record from two wars, and relegate Pocock more to the back of history. By 1934 Pocock was back in favour, but by then the claims on the advertising leaflet had been repeated all round the Commonwealth – and still sometimes appears today.
Over the years there have been wild claims that many famous names were members of the Legion of Frontiersmen. In most cases this is absolute rubbish. It has only needed someone well-known to have the most tenuous links with the Legion, for some excitable person somewhere to claim they were a member. There have been regular claims about the first Lord Kitchener, Lord Roberts, Winston Churchill and many others. Lord Kitchener found the Frontiersmen an irritant and was delighted to see Driscoll and his men despatched to East Africa in 1915. His brother, Colonel Kitchener was a Staff officer in East Africa and respected the Frontiersmen; they in turn highly respected him, but he was never a member. On the strength of a brief letter of encouragement from Lord Roberts to Pocock, published in Pocock’s 1931 “Chorus to Adventurers”, there have been constant claims he was a member. He was not. Roberts’ main interest was in campaigning for National Service. Winston Churchill was well aware of the Legion. When Driscoll wrote to him personally in 1911 about the possibility of his men lining the Coronation route, Churchill did not reply himself but made sure the request was refused. In 1953 Churchill was presented with a cigar box by New Zealand Frontiersmen. Perhaps their representative may have made the old man an Honorary Member, but this gift and symbol of respect does not indicate formal membership. If anyone suggests a famous name as a member, the simple reply has to be, what was their enrolment number? If no number is forthcoming, they were not a member. If they are not mentioned on this site, membership has not been proved.
One of the biggest myths about the Legion, which has been propagated by Frontiersmen, both official and unofficial, around the world is that the first British in action in August 1914 were the Manchester Troop of the Legion who made their own way across the Channel to serve with the Belgian Army. Yes, the Manchester Frontiersmen did cross the Channel to serve with the 3rd Belgian Lancers, but they were not there until the beginning of October at the earliest. This myth seems to have sprung up some time before WW2, possibly due to an inventive newspaper reporter mistaking what he had been told by a veteran of the Manchester Troop. Such a great story as ‘the first British in action’ was bound to spread and even fooled us for a while until we investigated Manchester newspapers. The Manchester Courier of September 28th 1914 shows a photograph the Manchester Troop marching to the station ready to catch a train and a boat to join the Belgian army. They could not have been in Belgium earlier. No doubt that myth will continue to circulate, but it is no more than a myth.
The picture shown here of the Frontiersmen at their popular open Garden Fête and display at Regents Park, London in 1906 has appeared with the claim of various sites. It is easily checked out in both “The Times” and many newspapers of the time.2 This has not prevented several years and sites for the photo being claimed for it, some wilder than others. The biggest “howler” actually appeared in an official Legion of Frontiersmen booklet that received wide circulation in the mid-1970s. There, in all seriousness, this was listed as the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in Hyde Park in 1915 prior to their departure for East Africa! There is no record of whose imagination produced this flight of fancy and who considered the men to be dressed in correct Royal Fusiliers uniform.
Another mistake that fooled many – and still does – is the badge illustrated here that is often claimed to be a officer’s badge of the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). It is not! There is little apparent difference between the actual officer’s and o.r.’s badge. When they arrived in East Africa the cap badge was highly prized by local people and the men often gave them away or exchanged them. Consequently, a number had to be struck locally. These were not the quality of those made in Britain. The badge illustrated here is in fact the badge of the short-lived breakaway Independent (or Imperial) Overseas Command, which existed only between 1927 and 1934. Also shown is the badge as it appeared on IOC magazines. The IOC were originally intended to be mainly ex-25th men, so the badge was to be a variation of the 25th Fusiliers badge with the Legion lapel badge placed on the grenade. It has been suggested that some Frontiersman with deep pockets had a large quantity of these badges struck, most of which were never issued. Consequently these are often offered for sale to collectors in near mint condition at a high price. Not knowing what they really are, collectors of WW1 badges have been induced to part with a lot of money for a badge which did not appear until nearly ten years after the end of that War.
We have the strange case of the phantom Battle Honour. It was not until the 1960s that Royal Fusiliers Battle Honours appeared on Legion Colours. Battle Honours are awarded to Regiments and not individual battalions, so the Legion really has only a tenuous claim on these. In addition, the Battle Honours featured on Legion Colours around the world: Kilimanjaro: Beho-Beho: Nyangao; East Africa 1915-17, are not listed among those to be carried officially on Royal Fusiliers Colours. Whoever had the initial idea of adding Royal Fusiliers East Africa Battle Honours to the Colours of Commands and Divisions around the world did not trouble to check on them and also added a non-existent Honour for Bukoba. No Honours or gallantry awards were given for Bukoba, even though they were thoroughly deserved. Recommendations for Military Crosses and Distinguished Conduct Medals were denied. Staff Officers, who instructed that the town should be destroyed before the troops withdrew, considered that unacceptable looting had taken place. There are differing views on that reason, but this has not prevented the non-existent Bukoba Honour appearing and spreading over artefacts both of the official Legion and the various unofficial bodies that have sprung up over the years claiming to be descendants of the original Legion of Frontiersmen. Orders have been made for the removal of the Bukoba name, but it may take many years for this one instance of carelessness to be completely eradicated. At least, steps are being taken to commemorate the courage and losses of the Frontiersmen at a Bukoba Day each June.
Over the years there have been claims of an increasing number of holders of the Victoria Cross holders being members of various Commands and Divisions of the Legion. These were men who joined the Legion and were at times active members, although not always. This is reflected glory. A public library could just as well boast of a Victoria Cross holder who joined them as a member. The Legion can truly claim just one posthumous V.C., that of Australian Lt Wilbur Dartnell. Lt. Colonel Driscoll made it clear to newspapers that Dartnell was awarded his V.C. as a Frontiersman. The other great gallantry award to a serving Frontiersman was that of the George Medal to William Green, whose citation for his great bravery in India named him as a Frontiersman. Bob Hollowday won his George Cross when a member of the Royal Air Force. He worked tirelessly for the Legion in his later years and became a senior Legion officer, but we cannot claim any credit for this brave man any more than for the Victoria Cross holders who became Frontiersmen in later life.
Unfortunately, there are always those who believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts. On this website we will only ever present facts that we can back up with evidence.
1 For the story of the World Flight Expedition, see: Geoffrey A Pocock Outrider of Empire, University of Alberta Press 2008, p 268-291.
2 For details of this event and another photograph taken at the time, see: Geoffrey A Pocock Outrider of Empire, p 198-199
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.