Owen Rhoscomyl

owen rhosc

The current issue of the Journal Of Military History prints my review of John E. Ellis’s very readable biography of ‘Owen Rhoscomyl‘ – one of the most extraordinary men of the early twentieth century that you have (probably) never heard of.

Born Robert Mills in Rochdale in 1863, his young head was filled with romance by his Welsh grandmother. He escaped a life of factory work by heading West for adventure (probably by stowing away on a boat bound for Rio. He found his way to the American West where he tried his hand as a cowboy, as a gold prospector and a scout in the Indian Wars. Was he also, as legend suggests, active in South American wars? Mr Ellis cautiously says maybe – but I bet he was.

He was Richard Milne (a more distinguished name, he thought) by the time he returned to Britain,  but he soon took on another identity – that of ‘Owen Rhoscomyl’, historical novelist. He had no more than an elementary education, but he had inherited his grandmother’s narrative gift, and was inspired by her the memory of stirring tales of Welsh prowess and heroism. His books had guts. The Times review of Battlement and Tower (1896) quotes this stirring sentence:

The grisly red of the great blade’s length flashed round in a mighty sweep, and the head of Francisco van Bruges, rider to Rupert of Clenneneu, leaped into the ditch to fright the sweet water-lilies and forget-me-nots below.’

Mills/Milne/Rhoscomyl was convinced that the Welsh were a warrior race, not just peaceable nonconformists. The Boer War gave him his chance to prove it. He sailed out at his own expense, and (now calling himself Keith Vaughan) he started recruiting an irregular regiment of ‘Welsh Horse’ from immigrants already there. The military and political authorities were not so keen on his enterprise (which ran roughshod over local sensitivities) but his Indian Scout experience was useful. he joined an irregular regiment, Rimington’s Guides, who would ‘knock about the enemy lines by night’, and raid Boer farmhouses. Sometimes they served as mounted infantry, and Vaughan claimed to have developed the technique of rapid, mounted suppression fire which ‘became the settled policy of Rimington’s Guides.’ He fought several battles, earned the D.C.M. and courted and married the daughter of a Boer farmer. He ended the war with the rank of Captain (and never mind the allegations of war crimes). Old Fireproof, (1906) is a novel whose narrator, an army chaplain, relates, with considerable admiration, a Boer War career closely paralleling Vaughan’s. (I’ve read bits of it. It’s almost readable.)
Back in Britain he became the voice of popular Welsh history and heritage (though he never had the knack of making money from his success) and was chosen to take a key role in the Welsh National Pageant of 1909 and the 1911 investiture of the Prince of Wales. (He provided the romance that more accurate historians generally failed to find in Welsh history.)
In 1914, of course, he volunteered straight away, full of ideas for developing the cavalry tactics that had been successful in South Africa, but it was not to be a cavalryman’s war. He made himself useful, however, and earned himself the D.S.O. and the O.B.E.
He died of liver cancer in 1919, leaving a wife almost destitute, since for all his successes he had never had a talent for making money. He is one of those men who make something of a mark in their own time, but mean nothing much to future generations. His novels are quaint period pieces, his ideas about Welsh history long superseded, his military achievements marginal. Yet it’s a life worth recording, and John E. Ellis has made a good job of it.You can read my complete review here – but better still – read the book.

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One Comment

  1. Roger
    Posted November 5, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “It’s almost readable”
    This is now my second favourite piece of criticism.
    My favourite is still Lewis Carroll’s view of Wuthering Heights: “It is of all novels I ever read the one I should least like to be a character in myself.”


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