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!

Formation of the Sportsman’s Battalions: Perspectives

Various books and articles have been published that include useful information about the events surrounding the formation of the Sportsman’s Battalions. With little in the way of formal documentary evidence of what actually happened in late August or early September 1914, these serve as some of the best accounts.

The Sportsmen's Battalion - Raised by a Lady
The Dominion, 1915

A very interesting account is given in the “British Australasian” just to hand of the raising of the Sportsmen’s Battalion in England by Mrs. E. Cunliffe-Owen. Like so many of the important things in life, it all apparently happened by chance. The lady in question was walking down Bond Street with her son when she met two well-known big game hunters of her acquaintance and gently rallied them upon not being at the front. They told her they had volunteered but had been rejected because of the age limit. Half-humorously, the suggestion was made that Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen should raise a corps of sportsmen without giving undue prominence to their birth certificates. The lady communicated with Lord Kitchener, and, to shorten the story, the Secretary of War gave permission for a battalion of 1600 to be formed.

The duties of recruiting officer were performed by Mrs Cunliffe-Owen herself, with headquarters at the Hotel Cecil.

The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War
H. C. O'Neill, 1922

The 23rd and 24th were the Sportsman's Battalions, which owed their origin to Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen, daughter of the late Sir Philip Cunliffe-Owen, K.C.B., and wife of the late Edward Cunliffe-Owen, C.M.G.

The idea arose quite spontaneously. 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."

The India Room, Hotel Cecil, was taken for a month, a dozen ex-officers were begged from the Officers' Association, and the enrolment began. Each applicant, in the presence of one of these ex-officers, filled in a form stating his chest measurement, height, weight, nationality, and whether he could shoot and ride and walked well. The form was then taken to a screened-off part of the room, where Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen signed it. The men were then sent to a recruiting office to be medically examined and attested.

The first battalion was complete in four weeks, and Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen hustled a contractor into putting up a fully equipped and model camp in nineteen days. These were astounding achievements. Most other battalions raised outside the War Office regime called upon more or less elaborate organisations. Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen formed her own organisation, looked into everything — even the menu — and pushed the scheme through to a triumphant success.

[…] The recruits for these battalions were a fine body of men, and were drawn from all parts of the world. " A man who had gone up the Yukon with Frank Slavin, the boxer ; another who had been sealing round Alaska ; trappers from the Canadian woods ; railway engineers from the Argentine ; planters from Ceylon : big-game hunters from Central Africa ; others from China, Japan, the Malay States, India, Egypt — these were just a few . . ." of those who presented themselves at the Hotel Cecil in the autumn of 1914.

The connection of the 23rd and 24th with London was very intimate. They did physical jerks in Savoy Street, and were put through their early paces in the very heart of London. The men were all big fellows, the average height being over 6 feet, and they took to their work gaily.

The 23rd (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers (First Sportsman's)
Fred W. Ward, 1920

Formed almost as soon as the war broke out in 1914, the First Sportsman's Battalion may have provoked some criticism. It was uncertain at first as to what branch of the service it was to represent. Personally I thought it was to be mounted, and I was not alone in this idea either. More than a few of us got busy at once in settling how, if possible, we could provide our own mounts. That was in the days when we were new to war, long before we began to know what something approaching the real thing was.

Recruiting went on briskly at the Hotel Cecil, London, where Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen and her staff worked hard and late. Lieutenant-Colonel Winter, then Second-Lieutenant Winter, with his ledger-like book and his green-baize-covered table, was a familiar figure. So, too, was the tailor who had been entrusted with the task of fitting us out with our uniforms. He, poor man, was soon in trouble. The stock sizes could be secured, but stock sizes were at a discount with the majority of the men who first joined up. They wanted outside sizes, and very considerable outside sizes, too, for the average height was a little over six feet, and the chest measurements in proportion.

Still, we recognized that these things had to be, and we kept on with a smile and a joke for everything. Perhaps we had a pair of army trousers and a sports-coat. Perhaps we had a pair of puttees, and the rest of the costume was our own. It didn't matter. It was good enough to parade in off the Embankment Gardens. It was good enough to route march in through the London streets. And the traffic was always stopped for us when we came home up the Strand, and proceeded down the steps by the side of "the Coal Hole" to the "dismiss." Rude things might be said to us by the crowd, but there was a warm spot in their hearts for us. We just carried on.

The Embankment Gardens, London in June 1915. Note the Hotel Cecil in the near background.

Bit by bit we were provided with our uniforms, and we began to fancy ourselves as the real thing. We began to make new friends, and we were drawn closer to those we knew. We came from all over the world. At the call men had come home from the Far East and the Far West. A man who had gone up the Yukon with Frank Slavin, the boxer; another who had been sealing round Alaska; trappers from the Canadians woods; railway engineers from the Argentine; planters from Ceylon; big-game hunters from Central Africa; others from China, Japan, the Malay States, India, Egypt--these were just a few of the Battalion who were ready and eager to shoulder a rifle, and do their bit as just common or garden Tommies. The thought of taking a commission did not enter our minds at the start. Every man was eager to get on with the work, with but a dim thought of what it was going to be like, but worrying not a bit about the future.

In a few weeks the Battalion had learnt how to form fours, to wheel, and to maintain a uniformity of step. Every man was desperately keen; to be late for parade was a great big sin. And this despite the fact that every man had to come into London from all parts of the suburbs, and farther out than that in many instances, by train (paying his own fare) every morning.

A True Sportswoman
The Straits Times, 1929

Thousands of men will remember that Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen raised the 1st and 2nd Sportsmen’s Battalions (Royal Fusiliers) during the early days of the War, and was responsible for the organisation and equipment of the two camps – a record that no other woman can claim.

[…] In her youth Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen was a good all-round sportswoman, and when the need for men came in 1914 she secured official permission to raise the Sportsmen’s Battalions – a task she really left her sick bed to carry through with determination and subsequent success.

From Sept. 4, 1914, practically to the end of the conflict she worked strenuously for King and Country, and it was at the request of the War Office that the first Sportsmen’s camp was raised at Grey Towers, in Hornchurch, in 19 days under her personal supervision.

The Fighting Nation: Lord Kitchener and His Armies
A. J. Smithers, L. Cooper, 1994

The Friends of the Royal Fusiliers were still working overtime. City regiment though it was, Society was not excluded. Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen was a notable sportswoman; when teasing like-minded male friends about why they were not in khaki she was struck with an idea. This she took to a Post Office, wrote down on a telegraph form and sent to Lord Kitchener by name. `Will you accept complete battalion of middle and upper class men physically fit able to shoot and to ride up to the age of forty five?' ...The answer ...came back immediately. `Lord Kitchener gratefully accepts complete battalion.' Mrs Cunliffe-Owen took over the India Room at the Hotel Cecil - soon itself to be commandeered by the Royal Flying Corps - and, one way or another, obtained the service of a dozen retired officers of her acquaintance to do the paper work. The forms of application for acceptance were more searching than most. Not just names, ages, schools and such like but skills with rifle, scatter-gun, climbing irons (oddly enough not fishing rod), horses and even `walking well'. The 1st (Sportsman's) Battalion, later 23rd Royal Fusiliers was completed within 4 weeks; Mrs Cunliffe-Owen bullied contractors into having a proper hutted camp ready for them at Hornchurch a week before that. To avoid accusations of unwomanliness she prepared their menus herself in the intervals between personally conducting drill parades. Before long sheer weight of numbers, each of some idiosyncratic kind such as big-game hunters, planters and whalers, compelled bifurcation and a 24th Battalion appeared.

Hard As Nails
Michael Foley, 2007

A letter was sent from the hotel by Mrs. Cunliffe Owen in September 1914 regarding the formation of a private battalion of 1,300 men who would comprise strong, hearty sporting gentlemen of up to forty-five years of age. There was also a request to the recipient of the letter to inform any friends who would also be willing to serve ‘King and Country’. Anyone interested was to send details of name, age, height, weight and their medical certificate to the Hotel Cecil.

No comments :

Post a Comment