The strength of Great Britain throughout the years has been in its individualists: men who have chosen to think their own ideas and not necessarily follow a lead without question.
The Great British Eccentric has also been a feature of this race and we have been all the richer for them. The Legion of Frontiersmen has always attracted its share of individual thinkers and of eccentrics. In its early days it attracted a few men of power but a far greater number of men of influence. Over the years, its eccentricities have steadily whittled away its influential support until now it is but a pale shadow of its original self. Its decline has mirrored the decline of British influence abroad. As Britain lost its colonies, so the Legion lost members. Its strength in the U.K. is small and it is probably strongest of all in New Zealand where it still flourishes as a symbol of old values which have diminishing worth in Britain. A note in a Colonial Office file (CO323) from the 1930’s about the Legion of Frontiersmen, Hong Kong, written by Col. H.R. Pownall tells us quite a bit about the members of the Legion:
“I have some knowledge of the Legion of Frontiersmen in this country. They are mostly, but not entirely, men of middle age – or older, who have “Knocked about” a good deal and like the glamour of a Stetson hat, boots and breeches, and a revolver holster, who, to their great credit, wish to have a useful function in emergency but are of too independent a spirit to stomach the bonds of army discipline in peace.”
As to the men of influence and, in some cases, of power who belonged to, or passionately supported, the Legion in its halcyon days before 1939, they read like pages from “Who’s Who”. Names from Prince Louis of Battenberg to General Smuts, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Edgar Wallace, politicians like Leo Amery, newspaper tycoons like Viscount Burnham, all served the Legion. They attracted adventurers, authors and naturalists, such as F.C. Selous, Cherry Kearton, Rider Haggard, Erskine Childers. Some of the names and stories will surprise. Before the Second World War, The Happy Valley set in Kenya were keen on the Frontiersmen. The victim of the murder scandal, the Earl of Errol was a Captain in the Legion and commanded a Troop. All of this came from the idea of a minor author, keen adventurer, patriot but great dreamer: a man forgotten today but in his lifetime a nationally known figure. This man never received honour from the country he loved with an undying passion, mainly because he took to his death the suspicion that he may have murdered a man in the wilds of Canada at the 1899 Gold Rush. It was not until 40 years after his death that, working with a journalist in Canada, I was able to unearth enough facts to exonerate him completely and suggest what did happen to the disappeared baronet, Sir Arthur Curtis on one tragic day.
Not only has the Founder of the Legion been unjustly forgotten, but the effect of the Legion of Frontiersmen on the history of Great Britain, the old Empire and the Commonwealth has been ignored. It is a startling fact that Britain came very close to handing to the amateurs of the Legion the tasks that were undertaken by what became M.I.5 and M.I.6. In the years between the two World Wars, it was impossible to see any parade in any substantial town or city throughout Britain (and many of its overseas Dominions) without the strong presence of the Frontiersmen in their distinctive uniform.
Another influence of the Frontiersmen was in the formation of the L.D.V. (Home Guard). Writers have regularly commented how the Home Guard in its early days rebelled against the authority of the War Office, often wishing to go its own way and even electing its officers by democratic ballot. This independence was a direct influence of the methods of the Frontiersmen. Certainly in the first half of its life, the whole influence of the Legion of Frontiersmen, sprang from the ideas and ideals of one unsung patriot, but taken up by a growing number of men and to a lesser extent women. These men, whose power in the world about them varied from considerable to insignificant, all shared the same aims of the Legion, of “mutual fellowship and service to the State in times of need”. The great majority were Royalists, but all were patriots. Many thousands of Frontiersmen made the ultimate sacrifice and were content in that sacrifice to be “forgotten as becomes a Frontiersman.”
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