“Until the middle of November the whole available resources of Germany in the Flanders area were to be flung in wave after wave upon the Allied line…a thin line of Allied of Allied troops extended from Nieuport through Dixmude, Bixschoote, round the east side of Ypres, to La Bassée and Arras… Thus the Belgian infantry held the line of the Yser from the sea to Dixmude, where there was a force of French marines. Mixed French and Belgian cavalry and the 89th French territorial division continued the line between the Yser and Houthulst Forest…” 1
“A senior officer of the Lancers said ‘We shall not forget their help and the moral uplift they brought us during the most critical and tragic months at the beginning of the war, nor the material benefits which were so valuable to us when supply lines were so precarious.’” 2
The official booklet of the 3rd Belgian Lancers gave the above credit to the Frontiersmen of the Manchester Troop. An additional and often overlooked benefit of these men serving with the Belgians as the British Colonial Horse was the support they encouraged from England, as a number of the men, some of who had worked as journalists, wrote home arousing interest and requesting support for the men fighting to save Belgium from invasion:
“In a very short time some developed into temporary war correspondents. Articles and photographs were sent regularly to the British Press, and at the same time they had mobilised the ladies of the B.C.H. families on the other side of the Channel. Result – not only the Squadron, but the whole Regiment benefited from the receipt of innumerable parcels. Woollies, cigarettes and many bother goodies brought a little well-being to our men who had been deprived of comfort at the beginning of the first winter of the war.” 3
“The cavalrymen of 3rd Squadron were astonished at the arrival in their quarters at ‘Groene Poorte’ 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. The Belgian G.O.C. had provided them with armaments and horses. They could have been taken for Canadians at first because of their hats. Commandant J. Fontaine greeted them in their language and installed them as his 6th Platoon. It was the ‘British Colonial Horse.’ These British came from the Legion of Frontiersmen, Manchester Squadron, a body of volunteers founded in 1904 ‘to provide a body of men to serve their country with thousands of eyes keeping sleepless watch throughout the world.’ 4
As these were true and experienced Frontiersmen, they were able to show the Belgian troops how to make the best of the conditions and organise shelters and quarters in abandoned villages with some modicum of comfort. Very soon they had their first real fight. On 18th October the 3rd Lancers were ordered to occupy St. Pierre-Capelle and Leke. They were reinforced by a company of cyclists, some artillery and an armoured car. The Frontiersmen occupied ditches to the west of the road to Slype. The cyclists suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Germans who were better armed. The order came for the Lancers to remount and retreat. The Belgians, who had already experienced much fighting, watched the Frontiersmen with great interest, but these men had seen considerable action before in the wars in South Africa and what was then known as Zululand. “Their behaviour was plendid”.
”That part of the country is a flat, open, low-lying grazing land, divided in plots by ditches, full of water, with soft and muddy banks. Very few trees, some scattered farmhouses, and a few houses round a church were all the cover to be found. Such is the ground in which the retreat was to take place. It began at a trot, but soon, to jump the ditches, they passed at a canter; the horses also were made uneasy by the bullets and shells and also by the rushes of some runaway led horses…
“On reaching Spermalie, the first cover after St. Pierre-Capelle, and towards which there was luckily only one road, about one platoon of mounted men was left. These, by placing their horses across the road, stopped and caught the runaway horses. Gradually the men rolled up on foot and after half an hour the Regiment was remounted and reformed.
“The Canadians [sic] were the first to fall in. Then, as anxiety was seen on every face, they started to sing a hymn. This had a very comforting and calming effect among our men. Platoons and squadrons reformed, and the regiment pursued its retreat towards the bridge of Schoorbakke, by two and at a walk. General Baix, who had been somewhat anxious, congratulated now the Colonel for his coolness and the good order of the retreat.
“The cyclists had lost half their men and all their bikes; the 3rd Lancers had 4 killed and 8 wounded, of which 3 were Canadians [sic]. October 18th, the day on which the fight was fought against a much more numerous enemy, marks the beginning of the battle of the Yser.” 5
After this, the trench warfare began and the Frontiersmen took their fair share. In the low-lying ground, the trenches were always water-logged. They were posted to outpost duties in places such as Ramscapelle, Freme Violette and Ferme Rykenhoek where they showed discipline and great spirit. The Belgians had contrived to open the locks and flood the area shown on the map, which was into territory that the Germans had already occupied. Although the flooding of the area made life difficult for the defending Belgians, it played a major part in thwarting the much better armed Germans, even though they were superior in numbers, from carrying out their plans for a rapid advance through Belgium.
“When on 3 November 1914 large tracts of land had disappeared under water the front stabilized between the North Sea and Dixmude. But it had all come at a tremendous high price for King Albert’s small conscript army: almost one third of the infantrymen that had gone into battle two weeks earlier were now killed, wounded or missing.” 6
It seems that some of the Frontiersmen had cine cameras and films of the action were shown in British cinemas. It has so far been impossible to trace surviving film, although it is always possible that some will be discovered. They also sent articles and photographs to the London newspapers such as the Daily Sketch, Mirror, Graphic and Chronicle. These articles did much to encourage support, both moral and practical, for the Belgians among British people. Eventually the order came to disband the B.C.H. Whether this order came from the Belgians or British High Command is not known, but the men were transferred to various units of the British army. Captain Nowell who, it is believed, then received a commission in the Royal Naval Division, was awarded the Cross of Chevalier de la Couronne. It seems that, somewhat surprisingly, Nowell did manage to get home for a short while as a syndicated report on 5th November in some British provincial newspapers reported an interview with him. He said that it had only taken him seven hours to get from the battlefield to England (it might well take longer today!).
“When jumping one ditch his horse fell and the saddle was turned. Fully four thousand Germans were firing at them from not more than 80 yards range, and whilst he was readjusting the saddle bullets fell all around him but he got away without a scratch.
“Captain Nowell adds that there are piles of [German] dead lying in front of the Belgian lines on the Yser. Five hundred prisoners were taken, mostly young recruits, and he had never seen a more miserable and dispirited lot of soldiers.” 7
The Germans did indeed lose many men at the Battle of the Yser, far more than they had anticipated as they had expected with their great numbers and superior armaments to march though easily. It is believed that T. Balliol Lamb also joined the Royal Naval Division where he lost an eye on active service. As Lamb had worked for years in British Columbia, he may well have had enough of a Canadian accent to further encourage the idea that the B.C.H, were Canadians. .King Albert of the Belgians personally visited the Frontiersmen just before Christmas 1914. “He told them that he had often heard of them, and, because he was much touched that a troop of gallant English sportsmen should have rushed overseas to join his army, he had made a point of coming to talk to them.” 8 He gave instructions that, along with every Belgian soldier, they should receive the 1914 Christmas box of chocolates bound in the Belgian colours. RQMS Thompson still held that box untouched as late as 1934. The Frontiersmen were also awarded the Medal of the Yser. We have not been able to discover any unit of British military to which this was awarded, so the Medal of the Yser alongside the 1914 Star worn by those Frontiersmen must have been a very rare medal combination indeed.
Richard Reading had transferred from 3rd Belgian Lancers to the Corps de Mitrailleurs, the lightly armoured cars that fought bravely against the heavily armoured Germans. In civilian life Reading had been the editor of the Sporting Chronicle, but was to become known as the man who would not die. He was recognised in October at an estaminet near Furnes by Sir William Beach Thomas, an eminent war correspondent. Reading told Beach Thomas that his ambition was to capture as a souvenir the lance and helmet of one of the German Uhlans. Beach wrote up the story of this well-known sporting editor serving as a corporal in the Belgian army and of his ambition. The story was re-printed in Dutch newspapers and came to the attention of the Germans who set a trap for Reading with a solitary Uhlan as a decoy. Reading fell into the trap and thought he was on the point of making his capture when he became the target for rifle and machine gun fire. His armoured car made to escape, thinking him mortally wounded, but Reading, who had received 20 bullet wounds, clung on to the back of the armoured car and escaped, although both legs were badly broken. The war was ended for Reading and he was invalided to his home city of Manchester where he lay in the Red Cross Hospital at Worsley Hall for two years. The King of the Belgians heard of Reading’s bravery and sent a special deputation to the hospital to award him the medal of the Chevalier of the Order of Leopold. Even then, Reading’s adventures were not over and it was decided that it would be good for his health to go and live in Australia. He sailed on the Mongolia, but the ship was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean and Reading survived eight hours in the water with his legs still in splints, just managing to keep afloat. He died in Australia and King Albert awarded his widow a pension. He invited her to the commemorations in Brussels in July 1930 where she was accompanied by RQMS Thompson and “Pat” Cowan and treated as a privileged guest. 9
Another well-known journalist, Sir Basil Clarke, wrote an obituary of the “man who would not die”, recalling first meeting Reading at the Manchester Press Club when Reading was an editor and Clarke a cub reporter. Clarke also recalled meeting Reading in Belgium. Reading much preferred German rifles in preference to the Belgian ones. “’The only snag’, he told me, ‘is that I have to bag a German every few days to get ammunition for it’”. The lieutenant in charge of the armoured car told Clarke in halting English how Reading made war:
“We ride in our machine seeking German patrols, and Corporal Richard is very polite. ‘Yes, my lieutenant; no, my lieutenant’. But we sight an enemy patrol – he forgets the corporal. He prods me in the back and say: ‘Now, lieutenant, go to it.’ Buck up, lieutenant, and we will bag the lot.’ And he prod me in the back all the time. I say ‘load the mitrailleuse, corporal!’ He load and then he fire it too if I am not quick. Only when I take it from him will he give me the mitrailleuse and take to his German rifle. And he is not content to stop in the car. He like to leap into the road and fire where he is free to move. He even chase the Germans on foot like a dog after the hares. One day he throw down his rifle and chase two Germans across the beet field. For 30 minutes I see no corporal. I think him dead. Then he come back leading a German prisoner.” 10
Reading told Clarke that the Germans had separated so he followed one into a little estaminet where the German was hiding under a table. Reading dug him out, took his rifle and revolver, told him he was his prisoner – and then bought the German a drink.
There were so many such stories told of these great Manchester Frontiersmen. It is no wonder that the Frontiersmen were always held in high honour by the Belgians and even today, Frontiersmen in dress uniform still proudly wear the small pennant of the 3rd Belgian Lancers suspended from the button of their right breast pocket.
1 Hammerton, Sir J.A. (ed.) A Popular History of the Great War, Volume 1.[The Fleetway House n.d. (193?) 481
2 A brief account of the service of the Frontiersmen in the official booklet of 3rd Belgian Lancers n.d. (197?). Translation by Mrs Frances Gallagher, wife of the late Legion Major Jack Gallagher B.E.M. An interesting and little-known fact is that Frances Gallagher was official interpreter to General de Gaulle when he was in London during 1939-45 War.
3 A brief account of the service of the Frontiersmen in the official booklet of 3rd Belgian Lancers n.d. (197?).
4 A brief account of the service of the Frontiersmen in the official booklet of 3rd Belgian Lancers n.d. (197?).
5 The British Imperial Frontier Man, February 1930, 21.
6 Paul Van Pul, In Flanders Flooded Fields: before Ypres there was Yser. [Pen & Sword 2006] 228. A very interesting book describing how a few Belgians contrived to flood the Yser basin and hold up the might of the German army.
7 Dundee Courier, 5th November 1914, page 3. “Piles of Dead in Front of Belgian Lines.”
8 Yorkshire Evening Post, 22nd February 1934. “A Leeds Memory of King Albert”.
9 Yorkshire Evening Post, 22nd February 1934. “A Leeds Memory of King Albert”.
10 The Daily News and Westminster Gazette, “The Man Who Would Not Die”, 17th September 1929, re-printed in The British Imperial Frontier Man, October 1929, 112/3.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.