The source of a “camp-fire yarn.”

remountFrontiersmen Remount Depots 1914-15

It has been a regular complaint of the Legion of Frontiersmen that the British War Office has always been very unwilling to credit the Legion for many of its achievements. We have here clear evidence that the Frontiersmen played a major part in running Remount Depots in the south of England at the beginning of the First War, most notably at Shirehampton near Avonmouth, also at Swaythling, and probably nearby Romsey, near Southampton. There are two War Office files in the National Archives: WO95/5466 Romsey Remount Depot 1914 November – 1918 April, and Shirehampton Remount Depot: WO95/69 Branches and Services, Director of Remounts 1914 August – 1916 December. Neither file mentions the Legion, but it is made clear regarding Shirehampton that “At the commencement the personnel, with the exception of all the officers were civilians, with a foreman for every 25 men and a farrier foreman and eight shoeingsmiths for each Squadron. In 1915 it was decided to change the depot into a military unit so from February onwards each Squadron, with the exception of one, was in turn enlisted and provided with n.c.o.s”. Although the War Office claims these were civilians, they are referred to as “Squadrons”. We know that Lt.Col. Driscoll was desperate to keep his Frontiersmen together so that they could serve as one unit and was bombarding the War Office with requests for them to serve. Although War Office records state that the manning was civilian, photographs clearly show the men in Frontiersmen uniforms wearing rank chevrons. According to the War Office file, Romsey depot was started “about 15th November 1914” by a firm “Messrs Perry & Co.” Frontiersmen were men of action and not words, so very few of them left clear written accounts of their lives. The story of how Canadian Frontiersmen rushed to enlist is documented (see the Canada page), but there were Frontiersmen working at all sorts of trades all round the world. Frontiersmen had always been certain that a war was inevitable, and as soon as the word arrived with them wherever they were, they took the first available ship back to England and made a beeline for Legion headquarters at 6 Adam Street. From there, Driscoll would have sent them to the Remount depots at Swaythling and at Avonmouth with instructions to utilise their riding skills there until he could send for them for a new Frontiersmen named unit. Driscoll wrote to Frontiersmen officer Seymour Rowlinson of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada:

“I have a large number of our men in the remounts depots training horses. This enables them to keep employed until such times as they are called out for mounted duty. It also enables me to find a place for the many men who are coming constantly from overseas, so if you know of any men who care to come across they may be sure of getting into something as soon as they report to me.”

Shirehampton was near Avonmouth Docks, and Swaythling and Romsey close to Southampton Docks where the remounts from Canada and America were landed. It seems probable that Swaythling came under Romsey. Sizeable parcels of suitable land would have been needed wherever they could be obtained within reasonable proximity of the Docks to stable the large number of horses passing through. In February 1949, one of the Frontiersmen who had been working at Swaythling, Vahd W. Tobin, wrote an account for a magazine, The Gen, which folded many years ago, of his version of what was to become a favourite “camp-fire yarn” for Frontiersmen over the years. We reproduce this here. The photographs from the Frontiersmen Swaythling Remount Depot are reproduced courtesy of V.W. Tobin’s daughter, the well-known actress June Tobin.

remount2“The affair provided mirth for the camp for days. Legion H.Q. took it with joyous whoops. When sent in the form of a report to the W.O. (as had to be done), it was said that even the grim features of Kitchener twitched on reading it. And this is what led up to it.

In the Legion camp at Swaythling, squads of Frontiersmen had been leaving since dawn with horses for embarkation at Southampton, while others had gone to detrain horses from sidings and bring them into camp. Riding one horse and leading three – the usual practice – had about trained the camp of available men.

The last assignment came towards evening, requiring 25 men at a distant siding to detrain 100 officers’ remounts and bring them into the adjacent depot – which was separate from our camp and in charge of Regular Army remount staff. Only five off-duty men could be found, however: but they were five of the best –Buck, the only n.c.o. left; Yank, an ex-cowpuncher; Digger, from “down under”; Gringo, from the Argentine pampas; and Capey, an ex-Cape Mounted Policeman. To admit failure to find the requisite squad was unthinkable – like letting the Legion down – particularly in view of the fierce rivalry between the neighbouring depot and our own camp.

“We’ll rope in some of our fellows coming off duty from the docks,” said Buck, as the squad saddled up and moved off.

Darkness came soon after Buck’s party left (it was November 1914) and some rain fell. Later, the sky cleared and a bright moon shone.

By the time we judged Buck would be back, we had our camp fire blazing high, billycans of coffee ready, and grub keeping hot.

Presently, from the far end of our lines, a guard reported hearing in the distance Yank’s high yip-ee and the crack of Digger’s stockwhip. Shortly after, from the road junction came a rumble of hooves and the neighing of horses. A few minutes later we saw lantern lights down by the depot main gate.

“Hope old Buck and the rest found enough fellows in town to give a hand,” someone observed. It was more an expression of friendly goodwill than concern, for Buck and his party were known to be a particularly resourceful lot. All the same, we wondered what delayed them so long in handing over the horses.

remount3Finally, the depot lanterns winked out. Soon after we heard Buck and his party in our lines off-saddling and feeding their mounts, and evidently in high good-humour. Questions were fired at them, but they were not to be drawn.

“Coffee and grub first,” laughed Buck. The meal over, pipes and cigarettes going and coffee mugs topped up again, Buck was voted teller of the night’s doings.

“Well” he began, with a vast grin, “as you heard, we couldn’t find any of our fellows in town, and time being short, we headed for the siding away out east of the town. The guard helped us detrain the horses and turn them into a little field, and as soon as he left we acted on Yank’s suggestion, which was to select a route clear of town and make a ‘drive’ of it. With just five there was no other way to handle a hundred horses. So we starts off, Yank taking point position, Digger and Gringo the flanks to block branch roads, and Capey and I the rear.

“Well, the moon was up and things went all right for a time. Then, of a sudden, a dozen horses stampeded to the left down a sunken lane with low-cut hedges on either side, and after them roared the whole darned shooting match hell-for-leather slap-bang towards town. Yank and his flankers tries working up to head ‘em off, but I got jammed in; and Capey and I, of course, had to stay in the rear.

“The stampede started cattle and horses in the fields on either side of the lane rushing up to the hedges, all a-neighing and bellowing like mad. But there was no stopping our lot, and in no time they had galloped right into town. And then, by gum, we remembered it was Saturday night and market night!

“The whole durned town seemed full of people. At one moment they were sort of peacefully shoppin’, and the next our horses were rushin’ about among ‘em. It was sure some entertainment! There were horses mixed up with the traffic and policemen blowin’ their whistle. There were horses clatterin’ along the streets and slippin’ on the pavements, makin’ one hell of a din; and women and kids yellin’ and skedaddlin’ into shops, and dogs barkin’. For a while the situation looked pretty serious – though durned if we could help laughin’ at it.

“However, after chasing horses hell-for-leather up street and down, we got pretty nigh the lot, we thought, bunched in a quiet street, and eventually going quietly along the country road. How many we’d lost we couldn’t tell. That remained for the check-up through the depot shute.

“Well, finally we got ‘em turned into the lane below here. By then, Yank, Digger, and I had worked up ahead so as to report to the old depot C.O. He, with his staff and some civilian orderlies with lanterns met us by the depot gate. And wasn’t that old brass hat in a state?

“‘What’s the meaning of all this,’ he raps out, ‘Galloping these horses through the streets of Southampton. Disgraceful,’ he says, ‘Unheard of.’ And he went on to say the police had telephoned him about us, and that he’d already reported the matter to Remount H.Q. ‘And heaven knows how many of these valuable horses you’ve lost,’ he winds up.

“I thought the old buffer would blow up at any moment. We could see his face getting’ redder and redder in the lantern lights.

“I told him then that I took full responsibility, and that we should get the horses up and counted through the shute. I said this mighty confident, hopin’ the count wouldn’t show more than ten missin’.

“Well we got the horses headin’ up to the shute. Yank and I halts at one side, and the old Colonel – still splutterin’ – posts himself with his staff at the other. Digger and the rest begin hazin’ the horses through. Now for it – I thought – and the count started.

“Close on 70 had gone through – which Yank tallies – and that seemed the lot. Things looked mighty black at that moment. ‘Looks as though a fifth of the horses are missin’ shouts the old brass-hat: and if there wasn’t a note of satisfaction in his voice I’ll eat my Stetson.

“And the, to our relief, along came quite a bunch of horses. That was Gringo and Digger, here, the old sons-of-a-gun, keepin’ ‘em back on purpose just to throw a scare into us up at the shute.

“And horses kept on comin’ – eighty, eighty-five, ninety – and still there were more to come! We could scarcely believe our luck. Looks as if we’ve got ‘em all, I shouts to Yank. But he was grinnin’ at the old Colonel, whose face we could see in the lantern light. He had his mouth open and his eyes half poppin’ out of his head.

“And then – well, we wish you had been there! Yank and I just bellows with laugher. For, on the count of ‘one hundred’, durned if there wasn’t more horses to come. Hundred and one-two-three, shouts Yank at the top of his voice, and went on countin’ to a hundred and seven.

“By then the rest of the boys had come up, and when they hear the total – well. You can imagine their yells. I hands the old brass-hat the guard’s duplicate receipt. ‘The joke’s on you, Colonel,’ I says. But he couldn’t say a word.”

Delighted back-slapping and chuckles greeted Buck’s story. But the big laugh came when someone ventured. “But – look here, Buck, didn’t you say that you gave the guard at the siding a receipt for only a hundred head?”

“Sure,” said Buck, he and the others choking with laugher. “But, don’t you see,” he went on, “we picked up, somewhere, seven horses on the way.”

Right up until the Second War, Tobin was a keen Frontiersman who was often at Frontiersmen summer camps with his friend Roger Pocock. There this yarn was one that would have been told again and again over a pipe of tobacco around the camp fire. As with other “camp-fire yarns”, other versions of the tale could often be given. In a letter to the Frontiersman in 1938, Arthur Marini gave his version of the story and confirmed that Frontiersmen were returning to England hoping to serve in an official Frontiersmen military unit.

“Our numbers were totally inadequate to cope with the task of doing things as Colonel Driscoll wanted them done. Hundreds of horses had to be handled daily, but each day brought Legionaries from all over the Empire. How we welcomed them, knowing the assistance they would render in building up a Remount Camp worthy of the Legion’s name.”

Marini then went on to tell either the same or a similar story to the one described by Tobin.

“Who can forget an occasion when the Camp received an S.O.S. at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning, when most of the men were one leave, from the Railway authorities that 100 horses were in rail trucks having been en route since the day before, and that it was imperative that as speedy attention as possible be given them.

“Poor Dartnell was in charge that night.”

This is the only record found so far of Dartnell being in England. Tobin, who would have known all about the famous Legion V.C. hero, made no reference to him by name or by reputation when writing in 1949.

“The trumpeter sounded the ‘fall in’, but only 32 men turned out who were however considered enough to bring the 100 horses into camp, so we marched two and a half miles down to Swaythling Station…”

Marini’s story is that the horses were at the nearby station and not at Southampton Docks, however he also wrote of a stampede.

“We saddled a horse apiece, and were getting away nicely when a stampede started, so Lieut. Dartnell gave the order for us to drive them back as you would cattle.”

Marini wrote that they then counted 102 in, but branded them all the following morning. On Monday, a local butcher called at the camp to see if they had his two horses which were missing from a field and which had obviously joined the stampede.

remount4We are now able to add further to the story of the Remounts at Swaythling, Southampton, run by the Legion of Frontiersmen from the start of the First War until Lt.Col. Driscoll was ordered to form the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) in early 1915. Jungle Jim’s memories deserve detailing in full. Although War Office records in the British National Archives curiously omit all mention of the Frontiersmen it is certain that the Frontiersmen were officially detailed to run Remounts Depots at Swaythling, Southampton and near Avonmouth. An army officer was posted in command at Swaythling, but the highly skilled Frontiersmen did the work. The depot at Swaythling was commanded by a regular cavalry Colonel who took a somewhat jaundiced view of “these b****y Colonials”. The full reminiscences of the late “Jungle Jim” Biddulph-Pinchard have just come to light regarding the Swaything remounts. Jungle Jim was a boy at the time, but his father, Robert Biddulph-Pinchard, was the c.o. of the Hants and Wilts Squadron, Legion of Frontiersmen. Robert was stopping with his wife and his two sons Jim and Bob at the home of Legion Capt Arnold in Hillhead, Hants, when Frontiersman Pat Keane, who ran the remount stables in Shirley, rode up to the house with a led horse, to inform Jungle Jim’s father that war had been declared. He immediately mounted and rode back to Southampton to mobilise the Legion Squadron. Capt. Arnold, who was the 2i/c, rode back to Wickham to change into uniform and report for duty.

Jungle Jim’s account of the drive of horses from the docks to the camp differs from others, such as Vahd W (Bill) Tobin’s, most notably in the number of horses and who was in charge. However many horses there actually were, the story is a great tale of Frontiersmen initiative and Jungle Jim’s account written in his own style is a splendid one. In 1981 Jungle Jim went to meet Mr H G Thew who as an 11 year old boy in 1914 had spent much of his spare time at the Frontiersmen camp. The two men re-traced the route taken by the horses and some notable places of interest near the camp. Some of their photographs are reproduced with this item.

remount5In 1914 Lieut Colonel D.P. (Dan) Driscoll, DSO, famous as the leader of Driscoll’s Scouts – known affectionately throughout South Africa as “Driscoll’s Scallywags”, who did a magnificent job as Scouts and Mounted Infantry against the Boers, offered the Home Command as a complete force for active service as a “commando” unit. The Government were not interested, but did allow us to form the two great Remount Depots at Avonmouth and Southampton.

“Dan” Driscoll was a great personal friend of my mother and father, and many an hour he sat on the floor with me and told me wonderful stories of war, big game hunting of Courteney Selous, the greatest naturalist and White Hunter, and of the native tribes!!

Swaythling Park, a beautiful place of greensward, stately oaks, beeches, horse chestnuts, elms and the darker fir and pine trees, also rough ‘shooting’ pastures, coppice and hedge. I can remember as a small boy the long straight lines of tents, dressed to perfection, the big mess marquee, the headquarters, cookhouse and open fire which we sat round after the evening meal and sang talked and smoked until ‘Lights Out’. I remember the horse lines, the smell of hay, horse and sweaty horse blankets drying in the sun, of shoeing when the farriers dealt with both Troop and Remount horses, the ‘corral’ where the horse breaking and training took place, the bucking horses, sun fishing around the posts, the dust, the noise and the hard riding men ‘fading’ the horses with their hats as they clung like limpets to their backs – spills and knocks were frequent, but the work of breaking and training the horses for use in the Army went on without cessation. I remember the parades, the Union Jack and the Hants Squadron flag flying from their respective flag poles, the reveille at Retreat, the bugle’s sobbing notes, the comradeship, and the wonderful tales told to a small boy who loved every minute of it and made up his mind then and there that one day when he grew up he would be a Frontiersman also.

…the greatest day came one Sunday when the camp commandant, who was a regular Hussar officer, sent for my father, informed him that there were 600 heavy draft horses arriving at the docks station, and ordered my father to fetch them up to the depot at once. It was pointed out to the Commandant that my father had only six men available, everyone else was breaking and training horses, but the commandant did not want to know, and repeated his order that the 600 horses were to be brought up at once “Ak Dum” and the “Aker” the “Dummer”!!

“Very good, sir”, said my father, saluting. “We will leave immediately.” So, seven men, Canadians, Australians and ex-cavalrymen armed with stock whips mounted up and rode down to the station. Then it happened! – the episode that was to make Legion history in Southampton and which was the “talk of the town” for many a year afterwards.

remount6My father turned the 600 horses loose and proceeded to drive them through the town back to the depot, a distance of approximately 8-9 miles with the seven hard-riding, whooping Frontiersmen urging them on from the flank and rear, the Old Man leading. The peaceful Sunday afternoon was shattered as the herd rambled along the High Street, down through Portswood, over the River Itchen by Cobden Bridge and then up to Swaythling Park. There were pedestrians running round corners to get out of the way, cyclists dispersing in all directions, tramcars brought to a standstill as the herd swept by on either side, householders at their windows and doorways gasping with amazement or cheering wildly as the horses trotted by, in and out of some gardens! – along the pavements and the roadway, moving like a heavy brigade of cavalry, advancing inexorably, like some many-legged juggernaut! At Portswood one rash police constable in a brave but foolhardy attempt to stem the tide rushed into the middle of the road, raised his arms, hesitated, and then climbed up the nearest lamppost before being engulfed! He was shouting at my father who said afterwards that he could not hear what was said because of the noise and, from the look on his face, it was perhaps just as well!

Again, crossing Cobden Bridge, bystanders were climbing on to the rail and one chap also imitated the policeman by taking refuge up a lamppost. Whilst on the country road to Swaythling, the herd swept into fields, farms and a cowshed and, on arrival at the depot there were 612 horses, 2 cows and a goat that had somehow joined the procession!

The Commandant’s face was a picture – what he said was unprintable! I gathered from my father that the C.C. was not amused at the mile long queue next morning of aggrieved citizens claiming cows, goats, horses and compensation for trampled gardens etc etc etc. My father said “I have carried out your order, sir”, which was unanswerable! An epic – and no-one but Frontiersmen could have done it – may good luck and fortune attend them and their colours wherever they proudly fly. The old names return, Capt. Arnold, Sgt Scot, F/man Pat Keene, Tom Bulbeck, the brothers Arthur and Swinton Hewet, ‘Lanky’ Lawrence and many others too numerous to mention – most of whom had crossed the Great Divide by the end of the War.

remount7After the Remount Camp at Swaythling, the Squadron were assigned to guard duty on the Common in Southampton. This area was used as a transit camp for troops on their way to France. The Guardroom tent and camp was at the main entrance to the Common, opposite the Cowherds public house, a small countrified beer house, which by the 1980s had changed to an up-to-date hotel with expensive food and good liquor, a complete change from the zinc counter oil lamps and wooden benches of the 1915 era.

Those sunny summer days and later the rain wind and snow, the long columns of infantry marching four abreast, their faces in quiet repose, thoughts away back with their families, or singing full-throated as the regiments went by – Tipperary, Long Long Trail a-winding, Roses of Picardy, Little Grey Home in the West, to name a few. The jingle of harness and rumble of the artillery, RAMC ambulances, and the horse-drawn pontoon bridges of the Royal Engineers – a country going to war! I remember it all so vividly. My mother working in a Red Cross canteen, my father in command of the guard, the sing-songs around the fire at night, the assistance given to the lads who had had ‘ a drop over the eight’ and were attempting to find their regimental lines, the sadness, the laughter that was near tears, the splendid singing of the troops as they went off to the Front.

The Legion did a wonderful job, patrolling the area at all times, checking civilian passes, supplying information, assisting with the horse transport, the unloading of fodder, attendance of local blacksmiths and many other details too numerous, but under it all was the eternal question – when are we going to really take part in this war? I remember Colonel Driscoll inspecting the guard camp, and saying that he was doing everything possible to get us moving. Then members were making their own arrangements. At last my father was commissioned into the 13th battalion the Essex Regiment as their transport officer. He always swore that he got the job because he could tie a load on a mule in a ‘diamond hitch’. He had learned this in Canada!

Harry Thew found the Frontiersmen’s uniform a romantic sight. He first made contact with them when they rode their horses down to the Brook Inn at Hampton Park close to where he lived. This was the terminus of the tram system and the start of the shopping district. Of course, the real interest to the Frontiersmen was the Brook Inn and young Harry would hold their horses for them while they visited the Brook Inn and occasionally the shops. At times the Frontiersmen would ride down on a little two-horse cart similar to those seen in old western films. From these contacts Harry contrived to get himself a job cleaning boots, riding tack and shoulder chains “for the noble sum of sixpence a week, a free supply of Chicles chewing gum, a new thing then, and breakfast of sausage bacon and beans and fried bread and ‘cawfee’ or ‘char’.” This meant getting up at 5.30, creeping out of the house and walking the mile and a half to the camp, returning un-noticed in time to get to school by 9 o’clock. He also spent weekends and evenings at the camp. Life at the camp was very exciting for an 11 year-old who could wander around at will and see all that was going on everywhere.

and above all the breaking in area, full of dust, sweat, spills and bad language, most of which I was not able to understand for many years after, and of course an occasional stampede to liven things up for when this occurred there was a general call-out of all camp personnel by a bugle call. I met some colourful characters of which I recall Long Buck from one of the Southern States of the U.S.A. and Pedro from one of the Latin countries, always good for a banjo solo: Cocky, a Londoner an ex-jockey the comedian of the crowd: Paddy the big Irish blacksmith who could pick me up with one hand and the cook who, I am afraid, I have forgotten his name, perhaps I was more interested in his grub.

Thew remembered the big run of horses but he was more vague about the numbers. He clearly remembered sitting on a wall opposite the Brook Inn to watch, but he gave the numbers as between 200 and 700. We may probably never know the exact number of horses in that famous run and who were the Frontiersmen involved, but however many horses were involved, it is a great Frontiersmen yarn.

The photographs accompanying this article show their original captions as written in his album by V.W. Tobin.

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