Although it took much lobbying by Lt.-Col. Driscoll, the Legion did achieve a named unit in WW1, but in WW2 it never came close to that proud result. It has often been asked: what were the reasons for this difference? The answer is somewhat complex. For many reasons the Legion of Frontiersmen was a somewhat different organisation in 1939 to what it had been in 1914. During the years leading up to the First War the Legion had been totally focused on their absolute certainty that a war with Germany was inevitable. The commanding officer, Driscoll, was still of an age for active service and was a decorated officer with a sound military record of leading the sort of irregular soldiers the Frontiersmen were thought to be by the War Office.
When we look at the years leading up to 1939 we have a much different picture. Admittedly, the “friends in high places” the Legion always attracted were far more influential men, but even powerful men such as the Duke of Portland and the Earls of Derby and Harewood could not change the minds of those at the War Office. In fact the influence of Derby and Harewood was much more within their own counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The President of the Legion, Major-General Lord Loch, had many friends who could wield influence in Parliament and the London Clubs, but not sufficient to counter the problems of the Legion of Frontiersmen between the Wars. Here was an organisation that had suffered splits and internal disputes for much of the period since 1927. The men who had fought in the First War, many in the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in East Africa, had been unhappy with the leadership of the Legion. In 1925 the Legion found itself with an unwilling, and originally Acting, Commandant-General in the elderly Arthur Burchardt-Ashton, who had been Legion Treasurer. His great benefit to the Legion was that he was very wealthy and, had he not provided much needed finances, the Legion would have ceased to exist in the 1920s as anything like a force. What is often forgotten is that the inter-War years were a time of financial hardship, especially for those who made up the rank and file membership. A Lancashire frontiersman, Bob Moyse, MC, DCM, had been one of the main founders of the DCM League. This was set up to try to find jobs and to give help in other ways to the numbers of men decorated for bravery mainly in the First War. There were close links between the DCM League and the Legion and it was not uncommon the see an entire Troop of Frontiersmen all proudly wearing the ribbon of the DCM. These men had to pay for their own uniforms and also try to find their subscription and other expenses during a time where every single penny had to be counted. By 1932 the Legion was split into the opposing camps of the official Legion and also the Imperial (originally Independent) Overseas Legion of Frontiersmen, composed of those who had close links to the old 25th Bn., and the official Legion commanded by the fit and active but octogenarian Burchardt-Ashton. He was closely assisted by H C Edwards-Carter, about whom there were suggestions that his war record was not all that he claimed. 1932 Frontiersmen magazines suddenly show the previously unmentioned Brigadier E Morton as London Commandant of the official Legion. Burchardt-Ashton was politely “promoted” to a non-job with an impressive title and Morton became Commandant-General. At around the same time Edwards-Carter died. By 1934 the breakaway IOC had ceased to exist and the two organisations came together. The suggestion has to be that the President of the Legion, Major-General Lord Loch, had used his considerable influence to locate a reliable time-served middle-ranking officer to steady the Legion. This opinion is emphasised by another army officer, Colonel Dunn, appearing suddenly in the Legion membership as Morton’s new Chief of Staff.
Morton’s and Dunn’s military experience brought a new efficiency into the running of the Legion, but at the cost of the independence of thought that was always a feature of the Frontiersmen. The chain of command became more rigid and the rank and file had much less influence in Legion policy, whilst senior HQ officers had more say in the running of local units and became more remote. This contrasts with the years before WW1 when the majority of all Frontiersmen ranks remembered the shared experience, usually as irregulars, of camping together on the veldt under the South African sky. Between the Wars, the Frontiersmen magazines gave reports of official parades, camps, and training in various skills. However. for an idea of what was going on behind the scenes we are indebted to a maverick Frontiersman, E. H. Rhodes-Wood.1 Rhodes-Wood set up and ran, much to the disapproval of IHQ, a “Lost Squadron”, until HQ persuaded him that they would arrange for a “U” (unattached) Troop in every Command. Rhodes-Wood appears to have held doubts about whether the new system was being properly applied. The Legion has always had the principle of offering a home to the lone Frontiersmen out in some foreign land working far from any fellow-countrymen. Morton’s system no longer allowed for any unit smaller than Troop size, but Rhodes-Wood had offered these men a Legion home and an interested correspondent. His reports of his “Lost Squadron” were not welcomed in the UK Frontiersmen magazine, but the New Zealanders were still very much of an independent spirit and welcomed his regular items in the New Zealand Frontiersman magazine. These articles were often highly critical of Imperial Headquarters. According to Rhodes-Wood, Morton’s ambition was to amalgamate the Legion with St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, even though this would not have been well-received by the rank and file members. Rhodes-Wood also claimed that General Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd when CIGS of the British army wrote articles for the Legion magazines to invite them to train for anti-aircraft gunnery “provided the Corps voluntarily evinces a desire to adopt this form of training whole-heartedly, and to the exclusion of other military exercises which can be of little or no use to it”. Rhodes-Wood wrote that the military were concerned at a time that there was a scarcity of anti-aircraft artillery in the UK. Montgomery-Massingberd’s articles were in the form of an invitation to the Legion “to accept this great and honourable task”. The invitation was never publicly issued, as HQ vetoed the publication of the letters and an opportunity for the Legion to establish itself in Britain’s defence system passed. Those at the head of the Legion considered that parading in a smart uniform with a row of medals accompanied by substantial mounted troops was infinitely preferable to dirty overalls and a greasy gun.2
In Canada an opportunity presented itself to the Legion to become officially of service to the authorities when, following the Founder’s visit to Canada and lobbying for the Legion, it was granted official affiliation to the RCMP. In a speech in Calgary on 15th November 1935, Roger Pocock said, “We’ve found our job for the future.” Local Frontiersmen had been sworn in as Special Constables earlier in the year for the Calgary Stampede, the first Legion unit to achieve this, and evidently done a good job. “He visualized the Legion in time as a great force backing up Dominion authorities in times of national stress”. 3 Here again was a different role to the comfortable one required by HQ that was being suggested for the Legion. In Britain, the Legion was certainly deeply involved (alongside St. John’s Ambulance Brigade) training in anti-gas warfare. There were great fears of gas attack in Britain, but fortunately these never came. It may seem surprising that the RCMP offered affiliation to the Legion of Frontiersmen, particularly as any official enquiry to the British War Office would have elicited negative reports on the Legion, but the RCMP recognised kindred spirits in the Legion membership, particularly in Western Canada: “Mounties had no immunity from the wider society that produced them. Thus, comments from them, including various commissioners, linked radicalism, discontent with the status quo, criminality, and even depravity with immigrants and ethic minorities.” 4 It has been suggested, although no documentary proof has yet been seen, that Lt.-Col. Scott, who commanded Canadian Division, and also some of his staff had sympathies with the more right-wing philosophies of the Alberta political party then in power. A simplistic view of the RCMP in the 1930s is that: “…it was a male identity that mixed Anglo-Celtic middle- and upper-class values with the working-class physicality of police life.” 5 It could be suggested that something of this view might be equally applied to the Frontiersmen in Canada.
What is strange is that no mention appears ever to have been made in London Frontiersmen magazines of the Spanish Civil War. No rank and file Frontiersman seems to have gone to fight for the Republican cause, as might have been expected. We do know that Hugh Pollard was one of those who took Franco back to Spain from exile and that “Kaid” Belton, also a devout Catholic, held strong anti-communist views, but a conflict between fascism and those of left-wing opinions that was the centre of discussion for several years even in non-political groups seems to have passed strangely un-mentioned in Legion circles. At that time, the Legion, particularly in the Greater London area, was busily training in anti-gas warfare, knowing well that any likely gas attack would come from fascist Germany. As to the other conflict of great interest during that time, namely the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, there is only one record of a Frontiersman wishing to become involved. Canadian records show that Frontiersman G.D.C. Koe, who had previously served as a captain in the military, put in an official request via Canadian HQ to travel to assist the Ethiopian Government. He was advised by IHQ that he could only do so as an individual and not as a member of the Legion of Frontiersmen. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Legion had to be very careful to steer clear of politics of all shades, even considering Lord Loch and other senior officers’ semi-public antagonism to anything with even a hint of communism. A major problem was the uniform. Although the patrol jacket was smart for formal parades it was far from comfortable as a working dress, as the Frontiersmen were unable to return to the comfortable loose-fitting navy shirt of the past in case they should be taken for what Roger Pocock referred to as “politicians in uniform”. In 1927, one of the fascist groups, the British Fascists, adopted a uniform of navy blue shirt and navy beret and the same year the Imperial Fascist League paraded in black shirts, khaki breeches with puttees and black boots, although Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists with their infamous black shirts was not formed until October 1932. 6 It is also fortunate that the anti-semitism that was an under-current of opinion in much of British society between the wars does not seem to have raised its ugly head in the Legion. The Legion was strictly non-sectarian, but basically Christian. New Zealand has always attracted some Maori members and, although there were tensions, Canada was a more multi-cultural society than Britain.
The final problem for the Legion came with the mis-handling of the problems in Canada, as detailed on the Canada pages of this website. This resulted in the RCMP ending the affiliation of the Legion, and so a combination of failures by the Legion senior officers finished any chance of the Legion getting a named unit. The extension of the age limit in the TA to 50 meant that by its own rules, the Legion theoretically could not attract many of the younger ex-soldiers they had earlier recruited. Some Legion units were forward-thinking enough to elect younger men to be their officers. During 1939 the view was held that war was inevitable. The attitude was different from 1914 when there was a patriotic fervour; in 1939 the attitude in Britain was far more of resignation to the inevitability of war. The TA and even regular units were eager to enlist the men who had been already well trained under the eagle eyes of the experienced men serving in the ranks of the Legion. So, when War was declared Frontiersmen in Britain drifted away to join the services with the older men joining ARP and the Home Guard. In Canada, both the Canadian Division and the Eastern Canada Frontiersmen, who had been forced to change their name to the Corps of Imperial Frontiersmen but still were affiliated to Legion of Frontiersmen HQ in London, gained very many recruits. In Canada they served in the Police and in Home Defence, but a named Frontiersmen army unit anywhere within the Commonwealth was not going to happen.
1 Edward H Rhodes-Wood had been commissioned in WW1 in the RGA. In 1939 he was a sergeant in the TA but in WW2 he was transferred to the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps where he was commissioned in 1940, ending as a Major. He wrote an entertaining book, It Doesn’t Cost you a Penny, under the name Eddie Harwood.
2 “The Frontiersman”, New Zealand, June-July 1939 pages 21-22
3 “Calgary Daily Herald” November 16th 1935, p14. For a fuller account of Roger Pocock’s official visit to Canada in 1935 see also: Geoffrey A. Pocock Outrider of Empire [University of Alberta Press, 2008] p 309-312
4 Steve Hewitt Riding to the Rescue [University of Toronto Press, 2006] p137
5 Riding to the Rescue, p138
6 Martin Pugh Hurrah for the Blackshirts [Jonathan Cape 2005] p.53, 70 and 128
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