The Fog of War

baron4Did a group of Canadians serve with the 3rd Belgian Lancers in 1914? This is a great example of the “fog of war” as there are conflicting stories. Neither the archives of 3rd Belgian Lancers nor any British accounts relating to the men of the Manchester Troop definitely referred to Canadians coming to serve with them. Certainly, we know they were called the “British Canadian Horse” or “Canadians” by many and some of them may well have worked in Canada or the American West, but the only mention of a group of Canadians actually serving came from Canada and Canadian newspapers. In a published letter by an un-named member of the Manchester Troop to a Frontiersmen magazine in October 1929, the correspondent when discussing the men with whom he had served said: There were also two ex-members of the Royal Canadian North West Mounted Police [sic], but he does not identify them. An intriguing report appeared in the Montreal Sun of December 1st 1914 explaining a story that had been circulating that a Canadian contingent had already been in the firing line. The full story was obtained from a man called Pelly, originally from Manitoba, who was working as a chauffeur ferrying reporters to and from the front line. When war was declared, forty Canadian members of the Legion of Frontiersmen arrived in England paying their own expenses. They joined up with British Legion members, but were advised to join the regular Canadian contingent. They were keen to get into action so the men:

“…who are real roughriders and scouts, took boat and train for Brussels and persuaded the harassed Belgians to attach them to the Third Belgian Cavalry [sic]. They immediately plunged into the thick of the fighting and proved their worth as scouts, and so sterling were the services they did in those days of retreat that individuals were pushed out and attached to other regiments with special duties and special rank. Pelly told me that one man had risen to a high position in the allies’ intelligence department. He was a French Canadian who spent a great part of his life in a logging camp.

“The losses of the little band have been heavy and he estimated that only fifteen of the forty were left, others being among the killed or missing. The only comrade he had seen during the last month was Albert Campbell, who hailed from Prince Edward Island. All through the campaign these men stuck to their picturesque stetson hat and blue shirt, and they were often mistaken by the Belgians and French as the first of the Canadian contingent.” 1

It is well-known that chauffeurs hear a lot more of what is going on than anyone else, but this story lacks corroboration from sources in Britain and Canada. A John E. Campbell is listed as one of the original Manchester Troop, but he came from Birmingham, England. There is one other clear reference to a group of Canadians serving in Belgium in 1914, this time in The Frontiersman, of December 1951, published in Hamilton Ontario. The first Squadron in Vancouver was commanded by a Capt. George Sloan.

“ Capt. Sloan retained command of the Vancouver Squadron until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. On war being declared he took most of the Vancouver Unit, some sixty members, to Victoria [B.C.] where they amalgamated with ‘Elliott’s Horse.’ [sic] The writer is informed that this unit was equipped by private funds and transportation paid to England. These men hoped they would be able to serve as a Unit, but on arrival in England the War Office would not permit this so the unit was disbanded, and its members drafted into other British Units. Some 40 members went to Belgium and were attached to the 3rd Belgium Cavalry [sic]. They wore the original L. of F. Uniform – Stetson, blue shirt, etc., which caused the rumour that the Canadians were serving with the Belgium Army. Only fifteen of these members survived.” 2

The article claimed that Capt. Sloan himself was then gazetted into the Scottish Horse and died of his wounds at Gallipoli. As to Elliot’s Horse, there is little evidence regarding what happened to these men after they arrived in London. On October 6th 1914, the Calgary Daily Herald reported that they had received a letter from London dated September 22nd to say that fifty men of the Legion of Frontiersmen had arrived in London and were believed to be the first Canadians to report to the War Office:

“…we intended to go to Valcartier camp, but on the journey across Canada we figured it out that to do so would mean going into training for some weeks so we came direct to London, and after some trouble managed to secure an interview with a member of Lord Kitchener’s staff. We were told that it would be necessary to go into training for some weeks, but we urged that we did not require training; that we were in good condition and could shoot straight and that we had the money in our pockets to buy our equipment and horses. As a last resort we asked if we might make our appeal in person to Lord Kitchener, and after some hesitation this was granted and we not only had the pleasure of seeing the great soldier in person but of having our services accepted. We are leaving for Southampton in a day or two.” 3

It was always a matter of principle with Frontiersmen that they considered themselves fully trained for any eventuality or type of warfare. This attitude was an irritation to the War Office, who wanted everything done strictly by the rules. What is not known is whether they were being sent to the Southampton area to assist at the Remounts Depot at Swaythling 4 or whether this was to be their port to cross the Channel. It is known that Capt. Nowell did send urgent messages back to England asking for volunteer reinforcements from the Frontiersmen, although not to Driscoll and London HQ.. Writing in the October 1929 issue of a Frontiersmen magazine, George Hazzledine, who actually served in East Africa as an officer in the 25th Battn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen), said:

“…Nowell speaks nicely of the Nottingham boys and asks for 35 of them…We were strictly forbidden to send our members across the Channel. Those who got there had to wangle it on their own. At the time I remember we were dreadfully afraid of the War Office and Foreign Enlistment pitfalls. We knew the Legion might be suppressed if it caused any difficulty for Lord Kitchener. We had done our whack well for the first 100,000, and we were concentrating on the Remount Depots, having 125 members also at Southampton.”

baron5The Calgary Daily Herald expanded on the story of the Canadians on November 17th.5 They confirmed that these were indeed Elliot’s Horse, formed by R.T. Elliot, a Victoria B.C. lawyer, and financially supported by Victoria citizens. The claim was that the men, some eighty in number, were virtually stranded in London but were given rooms and board at the Union Jack Club at Waterloo. Elliot’s original idea was that the men should join the first Canadian contingent, but the Canadian militia said that mounted men were not needed in that contingent. It was also claimed that once in London the officers, elected by the men in traditional Frontiersmen manner, had abandoned them. Other than a mention in New Zealand of the men serving as the “British Columbia Horse”, there the trail of Elliot’s Horse has gone cold. Did a group of Canadians join up with the B.C.H. In the 3rd Belgian Lancers? If they did it is strange to say the least that there is no mention of them in the accounts that came from the 3rd Belgian Lancers. All we can do is to put this down as an interesting story but one that is, as yet, far from proven.

In his letter mentioned in the first paragraph, the un-named correspondent wrote:

“What a Troop! The O.C., Captain Nowell, had served in the South African War at 19 and was taken prisoner then. There was Captain Max Hapenworth, D.S.O., and the Sergeant Major, Hepburn, who had also served in South Africa, and, not least, ‘Big Bill Hearn, six-foot-four and sixteen stone odd. He had come over with the Springboks in 1913 and intended to settle down in England to learn engineering, but the war called him as it had done before. He wore the Zulu Rising medal.” 6

No record has so far been found of a Hapenworth or any similar name winning a D.S.O. The photo from the Daily Mirror shown on this page was taken on the steps of the Ostend Kursaal Hospital. It shows ‘Big Bill’ Hearn wearing a Frontiersmen tunic with shoulder chains. On the other side of the wounded Belgian is Pat Cowan wearing the traditional Frontiersmen working kit of loose shirt, neckerchief and riding breeches. Unfortunately, this is the best representation we can produce of a newspaper page. Although the Frontiersmen liked to ensure that photos appeared in British newspapers showing them in their customary Stetsons and breeches, this was not always the most sensible uniform to wear under battle conditions. In the other photograph with this page, which shows them dug in, they are better attired for the cold and wet, mainly in balaclavas and overcoats.

“After two and a half months in the field, continuously confronted with an unstoppable superior war machine, the [Belgian] men were highly demoralized. Since the fall of Antwerp they had been marching for days with the enemy on their heels. Perhaps more importantly, the lack of a clear, made-in-Belgium strategic goal had been lost which weighed heavily on the morale of the rank and file.

“Desertions during the retreat had been common… As the army made its withdrawal through Flemish speaking territory there were proportionally more Flemish boys of military age being rounded up by the gendarmerie in the process. In turn these boys were more familiar with the land and could easily escape or make it across the border into neutral Holland.”7

It is easy to see how the sight of a few Frontiersmen in their Stetsons would have been great for the morale of the Belgian troops. They had been ever hoping to see some British soldiers giving them vital support, so the word must have spread like wildfire that the “Canadians” had arrived to help them. This would have been a great boost to these young conscripts and to others in the demoralized Belgian army. It is logical that they would have been encouraged to be photographed in uniform as well. It is certain that reports of their presence would have got back to the Germans, who would have been puzzled about from where these “Canadians” had suddenly arrived. Although their numbers were so few, it explains why the Belgians never forgot the Legion of Frontiersmen and for many years afterwards made the Legion most welcome and treated them with honour. Those who served with the 3rd Belgian Lancers were awarded the Medaille d’Yser – a very rare medal to be seen alongside First War medals on the chests of British veterans. Were any Canadians included among the recipients? Without clear evidence it is impossible to claim this as fact. Perhaps some day a group of such medals awarded to a Canadian will turn up. Until such clear evidence surfaces we can only say that this an interesting one of many stories about the Frontiersmen and the 3rd Belgian Lancers, but it remains “not proven” and the truth may well have been lost in the “fog of war”.

Canadian newspaper research by Will Shandro, M.Ed.; Canadian historian of the early years of the Legion of Frontiersmen in Canada. Frontiersmen magazine research by Bruce Fuller, official New Zealand historian.

Next Belgium article: “We shall not forget their help.”


1 Montreal Star, December 1st 1914, re-printed in Edmonton Daily Bulletin, December 2nd 1914.
2 The Frontiersman, Hamilton, Ontario, December 1951
3 Calgary Daily Herald, October 6th 1914.
4 See: The source of a “camp-fire yarn.”
5 Calgary Daily Herald, November 17th 1914.
6 The British Imperial Frontier Man, October 1929
7 Paul Van Pul: In Flanders Flooded Fields: Before Ypres there was Yser, [Pen & Sword 2006] 71.

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.