This bearskin was worn by Captain Frederick Wilberforce Alexander Steele, an Australian who served with the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, British Army. The bearskin headdress was worn with the traditional scarlet full dress uniform during ceremonial and state occasions.
Born in 1885, Steele was the eldest of four boys born to Philip and Johanna Steele. Raised in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne Grammar School, Steele was 20 years old when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Australian Field Artillery in 1905. Two years later, eager for active service abroad, Steele transferred to the British Army's reserve 2nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. In April 1914, after ten months stationed in Calcutta with the 2nd Battalion, Steele transferred to the regular 4th Battalion, City of London Regiment, Royal Fusiliers. Steele was one of thousands of Australians who served with the armed forces of allied nations during the First World War. In particular, many Australians travelled to Britain to enlist at the outbreak of war.
The Royal Fusiliers, as part of the British 3rd Division, had mobilised quickly and embarked for Le Havre, France within days of the British declaration of war. Steele and his battalion travelled by train across France to Landrecies where they disembarked and marched toward the Belgian town of Mons to meet the advancing German Army.
The Battle of Mons began on 23 August 1914 and was the first major clash of the British and German armies. It is often remembered for the gallant British stand and subsequent fighting withdrawal. Here, Lieutenant Steele witnessed many acts of bravery; two left such an indelible impression that he recommended the men involved, Lieutenant Dease and Private Godley, for bravery awards. Dease had repeatedly left his trench on patrol to inspect the Nimy Bridge defences and was severely wounded each time. The last patrol cost him his life and he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Godley had volunteered to man a machine gun to cover the retreat of the Fusiliers. Thought by his unit to have been killed, Godley survived the fight and had been taken prisoner. He was in a German Prisoner of War camp when he learned he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. Steele is among the first officers to make recommendations for the Victoria Cross in the First World War. A total of five Victoria Crosses were recommended that day, two by Steele.
Steele was promoted to captain and given command of a company. Writing home after the retreat from Mons, Steele remained positive about his experience of war and his future, 'I am very fit and happy and enjoying myself. I fancy I must have been lucky. I just managed my exchange in time for this. I have looked forward to active service for so long. At present I am in command of a company and two machine guns that have done well. I was personally complimented by Sir John French'. A short time after his family received his cheerful correspondence, Steele was killed in action on 26 October at Neuve Chapelle.
Steele's three younger brothers all enlisted in the AIF. Lieutenant Philip John Rupert Steele of 4th Brigade, Australian Field Artillery, died of wounds on 8 January 1917. Second Lieutenant Norman Leslie Steele of 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps died of wounds while a Prisoner of War on 20 April 1917. The sole surviving son, Corporal Henry Cyril Augustus was promptly recalled home to Australia to be with his family and assist his father in running the family business, Steele & Company.
Steele's bearskin was posted home to his family after his death and forms part of a collection of uniforms donated to the Australian War Memorial in 1946. Steele's mother, Johanna, who had survived her husband and four sons, had carefully preserved Frederick's uniforms until her death 1939.