It was as a Wolf Cub that my first experience with Scouting began. Aged ten, I joined the ‘Pack’ attached to the local Methodist church. Inducted by Akela into first aid, backwoodsmanship, star-gazing, map-reading among other lore described in one of the most-read books in the world, Baden-Powell’s ‘Scouting for boys’, scouting was a welcome escape from primary school’s less adventurous curriculum.
Two occasions stand out: our ‘gangshow’ featuring the song ‘I’m the only man in the island’, and a trip to ride on the Dymchurch-Hythe miniature railway.
In my secondary school I was given a choice of either joining the CCF (Combined Cadet Force) or the Boy Scouts. I naturally joined the latter and looked forwards to our summer camps where we pitched tents in idyllic locations: Barlavington and Trotton in England’s South Downs among them.
The Senior Scouts provided more challenging experiences including tough trekking through the wilds of the Isle of Skye’s Cuillin hills and more amenable hikes in Austria’s Salzkammergut.
It was, therefore, a pleasant way to reminisce when, at Bagni Di Lucca I came across the plaque celebrating Sir Francis Vane, the founder of Italy’s Scouting tradition in 1910, placed in front of the town’s Emergency medical centre, half-way between Villa and Ponte.
But who was Sir Francis Vane? One thing is sure; Sir Francis was not your conventional British army colonel; his life was punctuated by incidents showing an unorthodox attitude and odds for the times he lived in.
Francis Patrick Fletcher Vane (Dublin, 1861 – London, 1934) was born to an Irish mother and a British father. He came from an aristocratic family with Masonic, progressive, Republican and socialist sympathies.
Sir Francis chose a military career and joined the Scots Guards. At the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 he was sent to South Africa where he was harshly criticized for being too “pro-Boer”. Vane repeatedly criticised British war tactics, especially their use of the world’s first concentration camps for the Boers. Resigning from the army he became a South Africa correspondent for the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian.
In 1906 Vane unsuccessfully stood as Liberal candidate. He also supported the suffragette and pacifist movements. At the outbreak of the First World War Vane resumed service with the rank of major, and was sent to Ireland.
In the 1916 Easter Rising, he manned the Portobello Barracks in Dublin with about 300 men. Vane fought to have Captain Bowen-Colthurst, who was under his command, indicted and convicted for criminal acts he ordered, in Vane’s absence, against Irish citizens. Vane’s commitment to the truth created annoyance and discontent from the army and he was forcibly discharged.
In 1910 Sir Francis Vane settled in Italy, where he collaborated with Remo Molinari of the Villa Gamba (still standing between Villa and Ponte) in the birth of the Italian Scout movement. Vane financed the Scouts largely from his own pocket supplying them with uniforms, equipment and recreational facilities and, indeed, causing his own bankruptcy.
In 1927 Sir Francis left Italy for good following the authoritarian turn of Mussolini’s fascist government and the subsequent suppression of the Italian Scouting Association and its replacement with the Balilla youth movement.
Vane’s association with the founder of the world Scouting movement and its first Chief Scout is interesting. He met Robert Baden-Powell in 1909, enthusiastically espoused scouting and became a commissioner. Baden-Powell sought a figure like Vane’s to counter accusations of militarist organization directed at the movement. Soon, however, Vane clashed with the other leaders of the organization, and in November he was forced to resign. He then joined the British Boy Scouts (BBS), an association formed in May 1909 when a group from Battersea separated from Baden-Powell’s scouting group. Vane became its president. In February of the following year the BBS teamed up with another youth team, the Boys Life Brigade. These two formations gave birth to the National Peace Scouts.
I think I have said enough about Sir Francis Vane to convince you that he was truly a man ahead of his time. Do remember that when you’re next passing Bagni di Lucca’s emergency post.
During his lifetime Francis Vane wrote several books, some of which were highly controversial because of his distinctly unorthodox views. I shall enquire at our local library to see if they have copies of these:
The War and One Year After (1903): Critical publication on the means used by Britain in the war with the Boers;
Pax Britannica (1904-05): Follow-up to the previous pamphlet;
Walks and Peoples in Tuscany (1908);
The Other Illusions (1914)
Principles of Military Art (1916-17);
The Easter Rising (1917) book about the Irish uprising, heavily censored;
Agin the governments: Memories and Adventures of Sir Francis Fletcher Vane (1930) autobiographical.
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