Wandering off Knightsbridge recently, I happened to be passing the Hyde Park barracks just as a troop of Life Guards was emerging on their way to the daily 4pm inspection at Horse Guards.
While waiting for the horses to pass and admiring the extraordinary pediment (rescued from the previous incarnation of the building) that adorns Basil Spence’s otherwise relentlessly modern barracks, my attention was drawn to a somewhat inconspicuous memorial set into the wall.
The intriguing inscription reads:
To the honoured memory of Major Matthew Fontaine Maury Meiklejohn VC, Gordon Highlanders, killed on duty opposite this spot on June 28th Anno Domini 1913. He gave his life to save others.
Who was this alliterative hero? How and why was he killed on duty here in central London? What was he doing ‘to save others’? Was he murdered, killed in a riot? And how did he get the VC? HistoryLondon had to investigate. Having done so, I can report the tragic story of a man whose death, just a year before the outbreak of the First World War, deserves to be commemorated this week every bit as much as each of the 888,246 for whom a poppy has been planted at the Tower.
Matthew Meiklejohn was born in London in 1870, the son of a university professor at St Andrew’s. After attending Fettes College in Edinburgh (the school Tony Blair attended) he joined the army in 1891 in the Gordon Highlanders regiment. Sent to India, he served in the Chitral Relief Force, 1895, on the Punjab Frontier, and through the Tirah Expedition, 1897-98, being wounded during the latter campaign.
Promoted to Captain, Meiklejohn was next posted to South Africa at the outset of the Boer War. When a Boer force occupied the railway station at the small mining village of Elandslaagte in October 1899, cutting off a British unit from the main force based in the town of Ladysmith, Meiklejohn’s Highlanders were part of a British force sent to recapture the station. According to Meiklejohn’s own modest account of the ensuing battle, the Highlanders were moved up from Ladysmith by train to a point near Elandsaagte from where they had to advance on foot through open country in the pouring rain.
As they approached the station under heavy fire, several of the Highlanders’ officers were shot down. With his troops wavering, Captain Meiklejohn took the lead, springing forward and calling on the men to follow him. Although he was almost immediately seriously wounded, his fearless example gave courage to his comrades, who went on to achieve their objective and recaptured the village.
Meiklejohn’s wounds were severe, as the following matter-of-fact account reported at the time: ‘three bullet wounds upper right arm, smashing bones, little finger right hand shot off, bullet wound left thigh, this no great matter; a snick on neck; his sword and scabbard was smashed with bullets, two bullets through his helmet.’
As a result of his wounds, Meiklejohn’s right arm had to be amputated almost at the shoulder. The operation and his initial recovery took place in Ladysmith while it was under the famous siege from the Boer army which lasted 118 days and starved many of the population before the British were able to relieve the town.
On returning to England Meiklejohn was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military decoration, which he received personally from Queen Victoria. He became quite a celebrity, with his exploits recorded by several cigarette card manufacturers. In keeping with his bravery on the battlefield, his disability did not prevent him from becoming an accomplished golfer.
After a brief stint as garrison adjutant on the island of St Helena, Meiklejohn returned to London where he married in 1904 and, promoted to Major, took a position with the Officer Training Corps. Which is how he came to be riding his horse in Hyde Park on 28 June 1913 as part of an OTC parade.
Meiklejohn’s horse was startled at a noise and bolted: perhaps because of his disability the major was unable to control it and the horse careered through the trees into Rotten Row and straight towards the path of a nanny with small children, out for a walk in the park. Realising the danger to the woman and children, at the last minute Major Meiklejohn forced his horse into the iron railings, breaking the horse’s neck and knocking the Major unconscious. He was rushed to the Middlesex hospital where, despite an operation to save him, he died a week later (on 4th July rather than 28th June as stated on the memorial tablet). He is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.
The children’s mother subsequently wrote to The Times explaining exactly what had happened:
I found it tragically ironic that after surviving his terrible battle injuries Major Meiklejohn should have met his end in such an accident. In a week when we remember the millions of all nations killed in the First World War, it reminded me to think more widely, so this year I’m dedicating my poppy to Major Meiklejohn.
Picture credits: HistoryLondon is grateful to Dr Arnold van Dyk for generously allowing the reproduction of images from Major Meiklejohn’s scrapbook in his private collection.