A record of the Sportsman's Battalions during the First World War, including a database of soldiers who enlisted in - or served with - the 23rd, 24th and 30th Royal Fusiliers, originally raised by Mrs. Emma Cunliffe-Owen in September 1914. If you have any questions or comments, please send to fmsketches@macbrem.com, thanks!

Emma Pauline Cunliffe-Owen

The Sportsman’s Battalions owed their creation to Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen, a well-connected society lady who took on a friendly challenge and formed not one, but two complete corps of soldiers for The Front during the First World War.

Who was Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen?

Emma Pauline Cunliffe-Owen was born in 1863, in Kensington, London. She was the sixth of ten children for Sir Francis Phillip and Jenny (nee Von Reitzenstein) Cunliffe-Owen. Her father was the director of the prestigious South Kensington Museum, which would later become the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is a story that Emma’s mother gave birth to her while inside the museum, but whether this is true or not, she was without doubt born into a family surrounded by the daily organization and management of one of the world’s premier collections of arts and design.

Sir Francis Cunliffe-Owen.

In her youth, Emma was well known as an “all round sportswoman” and was very active in outdoor pursuits. However, she suffered throughout her life from rheumatoid arthritis, and later on contracted septic pneumonia and phlebitis. These ailments and her reduced mobility may well have had some influence on her desire to create a legacy for middle-aged sportsmen who were being overlooked when the Great War started.

In 1882 Emma married her first cousin, Edward Cunliffe Cunliffe-Owen, a barrister who was 6 years her elder. Edward’s father was the late Col. Henry Cunliffe-Owen, V.C., and the bride and groom were both grandchildren of the late Capt. Charles Cunliffe-Owen. In 1885 the couple was living at Inverness Terrace, near Hyde Park, when their first child, a son (Francis Edward) was born. Over the next 10 years they would remain in the Paddington area and their family would grow with two girls (Dorothey and Sybil). It appears that they lived in some comfort (but not great wealth); a census of that time lists six servants in the household.

When Emma was 31, her father died, followed by her mother the same year. Given that she was the sixth of ten children, and a woman, she likely received only a moderate inheritance. Four years later, in Sonning, Berkshire, she gave birth to her last child, Alexander Robert, a godson of the future Queen Alexandria, and future junior officer in the 2nd Sportsman’s Battalion.

From this point until the start of the First World War, there is less documented information about the lives of the Cunliffe-Owen family, but from what can be gleaned there appears to have been some distancing between Emma and Edward. In the 1901 census, Emma was living in Devonshire Terrace with Sybil and Alexander and three servants. Edward is not listed. According to the 1911 census, she and Alexander were visiting the surgeon Robert Basil Stamford in Loughborough. Although she was 48 by now, her age was listed as 42. Robert Stamford was 40.

Two years before the start of the war, Francis Edward died. A phone directory has Edward living in Buckingham Gate; Emma is not listed with him.

Any perceived differences between Emma and Edward seem to have been put to one side when war was declared between England and Germany. In early September 1914, possibly Sunday 6th, as the story goes,:

“Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen, on rallying some men-friends for not being in khaki, was challenged to raise a battalion of middle and upper class men up to the age of forty-five. She promptly went with them to a post-office and telegraphed to Lord Kitchener, " Will you accept complete battalion of upper and middle class men, physically fit, able to shoot and ride, up to the age of forty-five ? " The reply was, " Lord Kitchener gratefully accepts complete battalion."”

Mr and Mrs Cunliffe-Owen then proceeded to set up a recruiting office in the Indian Room at the Hotel Cecil, a grand hotel on the Strand. From this point forward they worked together as a highly effective team, often dividing the labor to visit different cities in England on recruiting drives. That their names both began with the same letter (and their signatures were similar) may have been useful when it came to the tedious task of signing letters and enrollment forms.

A month after the famous telegraph to Kitchener, Alexander, now a private with the 5th Leicestershires, was discharged from Chelsea Royal Hospital to commission. In 1915, at the age of 17, and no doubt with some influence by his mother, he was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd Sportsman’s Battalion.  A photograph has Mrs Cunliffe-Owen, now in a wheelchair, with her husband Edward at Alexander’s commission. One account reports that he was a rather immature, ineffective officer who earned little in the way of respect from the ranks, many of whom were themselves society men from similar upbringings.

2nd Lt. Alexander Robert Cunliffe-Owen, Second Sportsman’s Battalion.

The remainder of the story concerning the formation and training of Sportsman’s Battalions, and Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen’s involvement in both, is being told elsewhere in this blog, so what follows now returns to the story of the Cunliffe-Owens.

Later in 1915, Mr. Cunliffe-Owen had to attend Westminster County Court on behalf of his wife, for an unpaid butcher’s bill, which must have been an embarrassment for the family. It seems that Emma’s profligate ways had finally caught up with her, although it was noted during the hearings that she would had invested much of her own funds by then into the formation of the battalions. The defense noted that the Cunliffe-Owens were separated at the time.

In 1916, while the Sportsman’s Battalions (now the 23rd and 24th, Royal Fusiliers), were fighting in France, she and Alexander took a boat bound for Morocco. It seems that he was now with the Welsh Fusiliers, stationed in Gibraltar, although quite why his mother chose to travel with him is unclear. What is clear though is that a Robert Basil Stamford, surgeon, 45, was travelling to Gibraltar on the same boat.

In 1918, at the age of 61, after a period of illness, Edward Cunliffe-Owen died, leaving Emma a widow with an uncertain future. The following year, she married her friend Robert Stamford, who had served as a medical officer in both the Boer War and the Great War. Later that year they travelled together again, this time to Marseille, France, and now as husband and wife.

In January of 1920, “Emma Pauline, Mrs. Stamford” who “Raised two battalions of Royal Fusiliers” was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Nine years later, an article on Mrs Cunliffe-Owen, now Mrs Emma Pauline Cunliffe Stamford, O.B.E., appeared in the Straits Times, celebrating her life and achievements. It does not appear to be linked to any particular event, and was written in the style of an obituary. However, she unexpectedly survived for another 21 years, outliving her second husband (d. 1935), her son Alexander (d. 1937), and her two daughters.

Emma Pauline died 13 November 1950, in Loughborough, at the age of 87.

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