The headline in the London Daily Sketch of November 14th, 1914 read:
“These men paid to get in the firing line”.
The Frontiersmen in Belgium 1914
The claim that the Manchester Frontiersmen were the first British troops in action at the beginning of the War in August 1914 is a Frontiersmen myth and is inaccurate,. The evidence collected from contemporary sources is such that there is no possibility that they were the first British in action who were not part of the Regular troops of the British army. The claim that Frontiersmen were the first into action relied heavily on the memoirs of Trooper Rennie Roberts held in official Frontiersmen archives but these memoirs were dictated at the end of his life. They contain a number of inaccuracies. For example he stated that, with other Frontiersmen, he was riding at the Wild West Show at White City. This is quite likely as many Frontiersmen were highly skilled riders. However he also claimed that “we got word from the London Headquarters of the Legion of Frontiersmen if we would find some riders for Buffalo Bill’s Show at Earls Court” and also later “Bill Cody asked us to stay over the weekend”. In fact it was the 101 Ranch Show at White City and Buffalo Bill had not been in England for ten years. Roberts also said that “on 24th August His Majesty King Albert of the Belgians came to Earls Court to ask for volunteers”. No evidence can be found that King Albert was in London at that time. The history of the 101 Ranch The Real Wild West states that: “Frequently the audiences included not only prominent Londoners…and an assortment of high-society types but also British nobles and several European monarchs.” An official visit would have been mentioned in The Times but there is no mention of the King being in England. Of course it could have been an unofficial visit but that would have been rather strange with his country under threat. Also the King would surely have had to gain British Government approval to recruit British men. The Belgian Royal archivist has recently advised that they have no record of King Albert visiting England that summer and he considered such a visit very improbable. With regard to Earls Court, appearing there were flamenco dancers recreating “Sunny Spain” – not Frontiersmen riders. In the light of Rennie’s other inaccuracies his story has to be treated as most probably the faulty memories of an old man. There is a possibility that the visitor to the show was a Belgian nobleman, Baron Jolly, who is mentioned in Frontiersmen magazines right up to the 1930s, but the elusive Baron has been so far untraceable..
To go on to the man always taken as the leader of the Manchester Frontiersmen from the start, Captain Nowell; writing in the October 1929 issue of a Frontiersman magazine, one of his troopers said: “A number of the South East Lancs Squadron, commanded by Capt. Nowell, went to London to be inspected, along with the rest of the Legion in Vincent Square by General Bethune, the one-handed warrior, for his report to Lord Kitchener. The then present Lord Mayor of Manchester, Sir Donald McCabe, D.L., accompanied the party. Whilst waiting for Lord Kitchener’s report, some of them got impatient. [Dick] Reading and a Dr McDougall went off on their own to France, and then finally got to Brussels and joined the Corps de Mitrailleuses. The rest of us who could get away, numbering 22, paid our passages to Ostend, and joined the 3rd Belgian Lancers, but kept our identity, calling ourselves the British Colonial Horse.” The group photograph shown here taken by Maull & Fox of Piccadilly before they left shows those 22. The B.C.H. badges are visible on some of the shoulders and some of the Stetsons. No explanation as to why they called themselves the British Colonial Horse and wore BCH on their shoulders has been seen. Judging by letters in Frontiersmen magazines, a likely explanation is that they were concerned about the Foreign Enlistment Act. In previous years, British Frontiersmen who had considered going to far away countries in search of adventure in any revolution had been regularly warned of this. Henry Ernest Nowell, known as Harry and shown in the white-top cap in the centre of the photograph, was born in Lancashire in 1881, the son of a gardener. He served in the Boer War as a Trooper in the Imperial Yeomanry. By 1911 he was working in Accrington Lancashire as an insurance inspector, a comfortable position. He was married with a five-year-old daughter. His wife was some six years older than him, and unusually for the time, she also had a career as a confectioner on her own behalf, probably with her younger sister who was a baker.
The Times confirms that the date of this inspection was Sunday September 6th, a month into the War. The Legion has photos in the official archives of that inspection. The paper also confirms that the Mayor of Manchester was present. On September 26th, the “Accrington Observer and Times” reported that “Mr. Harry Nowell, of Willow Mount, Accrington, who has for some time been prominently identified with Col. Driscoll’s Legion of Frontiersmen, holding the rank of Captain, sails on Monday from Tilbury Docks, London, for Antwerp, to serve with the Belgian Army.” The final piece of evidence to prove that The Manchester Frontiersmen were not in Belgium in August comes from The Manchester Courier of September 28th 1914. This showed a photograph of the Manchester contingent of the Legion of Frontiersmen led by Capt. Nowell entering Central Station Manchester on Sunday 27th September “on their way to join the Belgian Army”.
The booklet of the 3rd Belgian Lancers states: The cavalrymen of the 3rd Squadron were astonished at the arrival in their quarters at ‘Groene Poort’ farm close to Pervyse of some large cheerful horsemen, gaitered, spurred, speaking English and led by a captain. They wore felt hats like the Canadian Mounted Police and cartridge belts with five pockets across their chests. The letters B.C.H. appeared on their epaulettes. They had come from Ostend where they had disembarked 10 days earlier, 6th October”. Any uncertainty as to exactly when and where they arrived is understandable due to the German forces sweeping in to Belgium, but it has to have been one day in early October. It can only have been Dick Reading and Dr McDougall who arrived in Belgium in September – but certainly not August. An undated cutting from the Manchester Evening Chronicle supplied by courtesy of Ed Guthrie, great-nephew of Norman Guthrie one of the Manchester Troop confirms that the main body did not leave until sometime in September at the earliest. According to the records of 3rd Belgian Lancers noted above they did not arrive at Ostend until 6th October, so we must say we have enough evidence to date their sailing within a few days. There only remains the claim of Rennie Roberts that a small group of Frontiersmen were in action during August before the advance party of the British Expeditionary Force crossed the channel on Saturday 8th August. However, his name is listed with the others of the known October group on the official Belgian Roll of names. The more that is uncovered, the greater the likelihood becomes that Roberts’ memory was faulty in more matters than have been shown here.
Next: to the matter of horses. Roberts said they took the train to Folkestone and the Channel Steamer for Ostende. When they got to Belgium “King Albert told us that we could go and get our horses at his stables in Du Pann, a lot of them had been his Lancer horses rescued from former battles…” It looks as if very few or (dare we say it) any of the Frontiersmen took their own horses. At that time only a gentleman of means would own his own horse, which would usually necessitate a groom and stables. Most Frontiersmen would rent one for their duties from a livery stable. At times they would buy one for a few months, often in the summer when the animal could have easier access to grass, and then sell it later. As to the Manchester Frontiersmen starting their ride from Manchester right across country, shipping them (expensively) on a Channel Steamer when most horses did not enjoy a sea journey, and then expecting them to behave as trained cavalry style battle horses sounds somewhat far-fetched. Most of the Manchester Troop who served in Belgium passed through London or started their journey from London, not Manchester. We know that their leader, Legion Captain Nowell, held a clerical job and was not a member of the classes likely to be able to afford to keep their own horses and it is doubtful whether any of his men were any better off.
For the first sixteen years after this event, there were apparently no comments, particularly in U.K. Frontiersmen magazines, about the Frontiersmen being the first British into action in August 1914. The first mention so far found is in a short cutting from an unknown 1930 newspaper. One would have thought that such an important claim would have featured before then. The paper gave no source for its brief claim and it could easily have been a passing comment by a Frontiersman relying on memory and this was misunderstood. Writing in 1931, in his Chorus to Adventurers, Roger Pocock only refers to them being in action from 17th October 1914. It has to be a certainty that, had the Manchester Frontiersmen been the first British into action, Pocock could not have resisted boasting about it.
The story of the Frontiersmen being the first British in action in the First War is another of the fascinating myths about the Legion of Frontiersmen that has proved after a great deal of detailed research to have absolutely no basis in truth.
There are many stories about the exploits of these men. The Founder of the Legion wrote about one, Pat Cowan, who preferred German rifles, so he had to capture prisoners to keep himself supplied with the proper ammunition. In one pursuit on foot, he lost his rifle, but chased his victim into an estaminet, disarmed him, bought the man a drink, and then marched him into captivity. Some of the stories about these Frontiersmen seem far-fetched, but many have been proved to be true!
Roberts reports of the scouting activities of their men. His story is the somewhat confusing one of an old man, but he does refer to the battle at the Yser Canal and the 3rd Lancers holding the Yser Bridge. He refers to a fight with six German Uhlans. “We got mixed up and I made for one and one of them made for me with his sabre behind me, but our chaps caught the one in front and took him off me, but the one behind caught my sabre and came down to the hand breaking my sabre off and cutting through the guard.
I rode for two days with it on my hand until the Doctor found a blacksmith who cut off the guard. My hand was only cut a little and the Doctor bandaged it up and put a few stitches in it and it soon healed up.” What can one say about men like that!
Just before Christmas, 1914. King Albert made contact with the Frontiersmen serving with the 3rd Belgian Lancers. Charles Thompson, Regimental Q.M. recalled that King Albert, after tasting their rations and pronouncing them good, spoke to the men in perfect English. He told them that he was much touched that a troop of gallant English sportsmen should have rushed overseas to join his army and had made a point of coming to talk to them.
Dr. McDougall found himself working as a dispatch rider,. but was called on to do emergency treatment on a General who promptly got him transferred to the Army Medical Corps – he was no longer too old!
At the end of January, 1915, an order came through (probably originating from the British War Office) to disband the detachment. They were transferred back into the British Army but they were awarded the honour of being permitted to wear the ribbon of the Belgian colours on their uniform. What happened to Harry Nowell is still being investigated. We know that after leaving the Belgian army he was commissioned as Sub-Lieutenant in the R.N.V.R. As he had no known links with the Navy, the suggestion has to be that he was approached by the Royal Naval Division who were fighting in Belgium at around the same time. He was awarded the Order of the Crown by the King of the Belgians and in 1916 it was gazetted that he was officially permitted to wear the insignia of a Chevalier of the Order of the Crown on his naval uniform. After the War comments appeared in Frontiersmen magazines wondering what had happened to him. He seems to have lived quietly in the Manchester area until his death in 1955.
Driscoll and the 25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen)
When War was declared, Driscoll, who had the Legion running as a well-oiled unit, came up with a revolutionary idea – too revolutionary for the War Office. We wrote to the W.O. stating the Legion membership as 10.500 throughout the world. He offered to land with 1,000 of his men on the French coast to work behind German lines “to clear the country of all detached bodies of the enemy.” This was not such a crazy idea as it seems at first sight. The German lines of supply in the first months of war were very stretched and they were in a hostile country. There was no way that the W.O. of those days would agree to Driscoll pursuing the Frontiersmen brand of independent guerilla warfare. They did go as far as to ask Driscoll to parade his men, which he did on 8th September, 1914 in front of Gen. Bethune, whose report was favourable, saying that Driscoll had a good hold on his men, typical “toughs” who would do excellent work as irregulars. Sadly, the W.O. declined this unusual body of men, but changed its mind in January 1915, by which time many Frontiersmen had been snapped up by other units. Driscoll had until April to make arrangements when he took the 25th Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) to East Africa. Because of the quality of the men, the Battalion was most exceptionally formed and sent into action without previous training in Britain.
History of the Frontiersmen in New Zealand tells us that “…membership increased rapidly, and in a short period of time as fine a body of picked men as could be found anywhere in the world had been attracted to the Legion, which was in a well organized state on the outbreak of war in 1914. On August 3rd, 1914, prior to the rupture between Britain and Germany, an offer was made to the New Zealand Government to have two squadrons of Legionaires with reserves, fully equipped, available at 24 hours notice. A further offer of some hundreds of Legionaires with reserves, fully equipped, horsed and saddled, was forwarded to the Government, which was to supply arms ammunition and a ship to transport the troops, the Legion to provide the ship’s crew, from captain to greasers. While the offer was appreciated by the authorities, it did not coincide with Defence Department procedure, and a request was made that all Legionaires wishing to enlist should do individually. The fact that as many as 40 members entered camp as a group gives an indication of the response of the Legion.”
Throughout the Empire
Throughout the British Empire this story was repeated, with Frontiersmen volunteering and wishing to serve as a unit, with comrades who they trusted with their lives. Nowhere would the authorities accept them as they wished, until Driscoll’s persistence in Britain brought eventual results. In Colonies such as British East Africa, units of the Legion had existed since 1907 and Frontiersmen formed an important part of many volunteer units.
Throughout Canada, members of the Legion enlisted keenly. Many men joined the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and later in the war the 210th (Frontiersmen) Battalion, C.E.F. was formed.
More details on Canada and New Zealand are to be found on their respective pages.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.