ID numberREL38444.001
Collection typeHeraldry
TitleBearskin headdress : Lieutenant F W A Steele, Royal Fusiliers, British Army
Object typeHeaddress
MakerW Cater & Co
Place madeUnited Kingdom: England, Greater London, London
Date madec 1910-1914
Physical description
  • Brass
  • Cotton
  • Fur
  • Fur felt
  • Gilded brass
  • Leather
  • Wicker
DescriptionRoyal Fusiliers officer's short bearskin with a large gilded brass flaming grenade badge attached to the centre front. The ball of the grenade bears a Tudor rose within a voided garter bearing the motto 'HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE' on a blue ground. The garter is surmounted by a kings crown and bears the a small image of a galloping horse beneath it. The bearskin is mounted on a wickerwork frame covered with stiffened felt. A black leather helmet liner with eight tongues can be adjusted for fit by means of a red cotton lace that is threaded through brass rivets at the end of each tongue. The back of the liner is stamped in gold with the manufacturer's details, 'W. CATER & Vo. 56. PALL MALL LONDON. Established, 1776.' The bearskin has a brass link chinstrap mounted on black leather. Each end of the strap is attached to a short brown leather strap that is secured to a brass hook sewn into each side of the felt lining. There is a black painted hook attached to the proper right side of the bear skin, possibly for fixing plume.
SummaryThis bearskin was worn by Lieutenant (later 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 2nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. In April 1914, after ten months stationed in Jubbulpore 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.

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 on 4 August 1914. 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 defence of the Nimy Railway Bridge, across the Condé–Mons–Charleroi Canal (just to the north 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 Maurice Dease and Private Sidney 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, he 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.

Occurring a little over a month after the battle of Nimy Bridge, Neuve Chapelle was part of a larger German offensive attempting to break through to the French sea ports of Boulogne and Calais, and started locally along the La Basse canal on 20 October. On 25 October they concentrated their attack on Neuve Chapelle which was regarded as a vital allied position. The allies, two days previously, had been reinforced by Indian forces - the Jullundur Brigade of Lahore Division. On 26 October the German 14th Infantry Division attacked and seized the village but were driven out in a strong counter attack from British forces aided by Indian and French chasseurs. Amongst the attackers were the Royal Fusiliers, who fought until most of them were killed or wounded – the battalion was reduced to 8 officers and 350 other ranks. Steele was amongst those killed – his body was never found. He is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial and was twice mentioned in despatches.

The German attacked again the next day from houses captured in the northern part of the village and succeeded again in driving out the defenders. Despite the losses, British General Smith-Dorrien ordered the strong counterattack to recapture Neuve Chapelle later in the afternoon of 27 October. It was badly organised, poorly coordinated and did not occur until the next day; 230 Sikhs died in the fighting, which again was inconclusive. Although the German evacuated the village (with casualties of 5 to 6,000) artillery fire made it impossible for the allies to retake it. The Germans later captured Neuve Chapelle, but it remained a front line position until war’s end.

Steele's three younger brothers all enlisted in the AIF. Lieutenant Philip John Rupert Steele of 11th Battery, 4th Brigade, Australian Field Artillery, died of wounds in France on 8 January 1917 aged 27. He was serving with his brigade in Flers, France, when he received a gunshot wound to his forehead, his right arm and right leg on 15 November 1916. On 1 January 1917 his leg was amputated; he died a week later.

Second Lieutenant Norman Leslie Steele of 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps died of wounds in Palestine after being shot down by anti-aircraft over Hareira while returning from a bombing raid against Tel-el-Sheria on 20 April 1917, aged 21. Their mother, Johanna, was reported to be "suffering from insomnia which is on the verge of turning her brain" at the loss of her sons. The sole surviving son, Corporal Henry Cyril Augustus Steele, aged 26, was also serving in the 4th Brigade, Australian Field Artillery when he was promptly recalled home to Australia to be with his family and assist his father in running the family business, Steele & Company.

Steele's mother, who survived her husband and four sons, carefully preserved Frederick's uniforms until her death in 1939.
White feather plume : Lieutenant F W A Steele, Royal Fusiliers, British Army
Japanned metal case for bearskin headdress : Lieutenant F W A Steele, Royal Fusiliers