Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (17 & 18 July 2019)

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Date of Auction: 17th & 18th July 2019

Sold for £9,000

Estimate: £5,000 - £6,000

The exceptional Boer War D.S.O., Great War O.B.E. group of six awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel R. V. K. Applin, 14th Hussars, formerly a District Officer with the British North Borneo Company during the Syed and Mat Salleh rebellions of 1895-97, one of many interesting chapters in his life to be related in his autobiography Across the Seven Seas: a machine-gun expert who commanded the machine-guns of the 2nd ANZACs at the battles of Messines, Passchendaele and 3rd Ypres in 1916-17, he later confided that he had ‘found out in 1904 all that the Germans taught us at such a cost in human lives in 1914, and which culminated in 1917 at Messines, when our 280 machine-guns, firing over the heads of our attacking infantry, rained one hundred thousand bullets a minute upon the German trenches with terrible effect’

Distinguished Service Order, V.R., silver-gilt and enamel, with integral top riband bar; The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, O.B.E. (Military) Officer’s 1st type breast badge, silver-gilt, hallmarks for London 1919; Queen’s South Africa 1899-1902, 4 clasps, Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal, South Africa 1901 (Capt. R. V. K. Applin, Lanc. Fus.); British War and Victory Medals, with M.I.D. oak leaves (Lt. Col. R. V. K. Applin); British North Borneo Company Medal, silver, 1 clasp, Punitive Expedition (R. V. K. Applin, Supt. N.B.C.), this last excessively rare, wreaths and lower arm of D.S.O. chipped, otherwise nearly very fine or better (6) £5,000-£6,000


D.S.O. London Gazette 31 October 1902:

‘In recognition of services during the operations in South Africa.’

O.B.E. London Gazette 12 December 1919.

Reginald Vincent Kempenfelt Applin was born at Alphington, Devon on 11 April 1869, the eldest son of Captain V. J. Applin, a veteran of the Crimean and China Wars. He was educated at Newton College and Sherborne.

Clearly well-connected, young Reginald’s early ambitions to take to the stage got off to a promising start:

‘The Baroness Burdett-Coutts gave me an introduction to Henry Irving, and I wanted to walk-on at the Lyceum. He turned me over to Bram Stoker, his manager, and while waiting for a vacancy, I had the good fortune to see Irving and Ellen Terry in all their famous impersonations, for Bram Stoker never refused me a seat, however crowded the theatre.’

In fact, he passed his interview and was sent by Irving to tour the provinces as Cassio in Othello, Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice and Trinculo in The Tempest. His father, however, was anxious that his son ‘should do something better than mime the footlights’ and a family friend, a colonial administrator, suggested that he apply to the British North Borneo Company. And so, on his 21st birthday, he found himself ‘busy getting my outfit for the tropics and buying rifles and a 44 Colt revolver’. He was duly embarked in the P. & O. steamer Oceana.

North Borneo

Applin commenced his career as a Cadet in December 1889:

’I now found myself established in a small community of Britons cut off from civilisation by a thousand miles of sea, and with the task of opening up a new and unexposed country of tropical forests, savage tribes and wild animals, thus adding one more territory to the British Empire … My three months’ probation at Sandakan soon passed, and I was appointed to Kudat on the West Coast.’

He subsequently gained appointment as a Police Magistrate and J.P. for Crown Colony, Labuan, 1894 and District Officer, Interior, 1897. He served through the Syed and Mat Salleh rebellions of 1895-97 as a Captain Superintendent (Medal & clasp; one of about 12 awarded), and twice received the thanks of the Company’s Board of Directors for services against the Tumnunam tribes.

His autobiography is largely devoted to his time in North Borneo and contains a fascinating array of stories, one of which recounts an early outing with a Corporal and four Sikhs, charged with tracking down a pair of murderers. Much of the journey was undertaken by canoe. The operation was a success and, having handed over his two prisoners, he ‘gave a bottle of brandy to the gallant Sikhs, who had remained alert and cheerful all though that long night’. For his own part, Applin’s feet were so badly blistered that he couldn’t walk for two days.

Not long afterwards, he participated in a larger operation to apprehend some Chinese criminals - ‘I had twelve men and Sergeant-Major Unjou, a splendid fighting Dyak, under me.’ On entering the criminals’ abode, ‘the men in the room burst out with yells; but facing my Colt revolver, which I must admit nearly went off, for I was bit nervous, they subsided, greatly to my relief.’

He was next back in action on account of trouble in the Mumus country, on which occasion he took a force of 25 Sikhs and 70 Dyaks, under Captain Barnett, in the gunboat Petrel, their intended mission to capture the rebel tribesmen’s fort. As he later recounted, he ‘fired a few shots from the 3-pounder in the Petrel’s bows’, while Barnett and his men stormed the fort. The latter was badly wounded, his helmet ‘being smashed to pulp’ by a rock dropped from the ramparts.

Applin took a year’s leave at the end of 1895 but quickly faced further challenges on his return to North Borneo. He was asked to replace an officer who had been overseeing the laying of a vital telegraph cable at Penungah, a station at the head waters of the Kinabatangan River on the East Coast, another lengthy journey, much of it by canoe: ‘After a strenuous and trying twenty-four days, we reached Penungah at 10 a.m. on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day. I did the last thirteen rapids from Tamoi in three days and five hours, a record, for it usually takes five days at least.’ Then ensued the cable laying, and for ‘ten days we struggled over mountains so steep that loads had to be dragged up, and the men could not keep their feet; through rivers often up to their armpits, and ever the dark forest shut us in on every side.’ Journey’s end brought him to a a friendly chief’s long-house, where he was ‘disconcerted to see some twenty human heads hung from the rafters.’

Attack on a rebel’s long-house - ‘horrid trophies of heads and even arms and legs’

Of ongoing operations in the rebellions of 1895-97, Applin gives a good account of an attack on a rebel’s long-house at Mahrang, in Tumbunan country, in May 1896:

‘I led the attack with the regular police and riflemen, while Barraut followed at the head of four hundred native warriors who kept making rushes to the front and throwing my men into confusion. I was with the advanced party and closely followed our guides, who, when we reached a fairly big river, pointed out Mahrang perched high up on a steep mountain side, much scattered and rather inaccessible.

We turned up the river and presently struck straight up a very steep hill through thick jungle. Suddenly we came upon a long-house in a clearing - fortified by a palisade. I at once formed up and opened fire, and three very irregular volleys caused some forty men to leave the fort in two directions. Sending my Dyaks in pursuit and leaving Barraut's swordsmen to rush and burn the place, I pushed on through long grass and brushwood to the top of a steep and high hill, and came upon three more long-houses about four hundred yards away from which men were firing at us, so I reformed and fired volleys, during which a mass of spearmen rushed in and soon the houses were taken and burning. The Sikhs were very steady but three or four Pathans were very excited and after I had ordered cease fire and moved in front, I had my head nearly blown off by a Pathan who let off his rifle just past my ear!

From my position on the open hill-top I could see the lower Mahrang villages which Chief Sinite was attacking. I could see men running and firing at Sinite's party. I had my new .303 rifle and, partly to drown the dreadful shrieks and cries from the village behind me, where I knew spear and parang were doing their bloody work, I put up my sights to 1,200 and opened fire - emptying my magazine of five cartridges. I could see with my glasses that this had astonished them, for they were running away and looking back at the hill.

Flames now rose from the houses on every side, and Barraut appeared and said all was over and both villages fired. War gongs and drums were beating on all the hills around and the whole Tumbanan country would soon be alarmed, so Barraut gave the prearranged signal for retiring - a rocket from the hill.

As the warriors assembled in their groups and moved off at the run for the river, I formed up the rear-guard and we moved off at a less precipitate pace. I will not describe the victorious march home or the horrid trophies of heads and even arms and legs, that were borne in triumph by the native warriors, to be met by dancing girls and howling women at each village. On reaching Rumpun we released our prisoners, sending by them a message to the Mahrang chiefs to come into Kiningow within a month and we would make peace.

On June 5th, exactly a month later, the Mahrang chiefs came to Kiningow and swore allegiance to the Government, killing a bull and planting a white stone on which its blood had been sprinkled.

They told me that my shots from the hill had killed one man and slightly wounded two others, and they were greatly astonished because they neither heard the shots nor saw any smoke and could not believe any gun to carry so far.’

In early 1898, Applin returned home - ‘I had been promised an appointment at the Imperial Institute and was anxious to get away, as I was suffering much from fever.’

Boer War - D.S.O.

In November 1898, he obtained a commission as a Captain in the 6th (Militia) Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, and it was in the same capacity that he embarked for South Africa on the outbreak of the Boer War. He subsequently served as District Commissioner at Bloemfontein from 1 June 1900, and Staff Officer and Acting Provost Marshal, Orange River, in October and November 1900, and was otherwise employed in operations in Cape Colony, Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, including the action fought at Luckhoff in December 1900 (Medal & 4 clasps). Applin described his part in the action thus:

‘Nearly an hour passed, when a galloper from the General ordered the Lancashire Fusiliers to advance and hold the enemy in front, while the mounted troops turned the left flank. As we advanced to the ridge, bullets began to kick up the dust all round, and it was curious to see how men ducked when bullets hummed past like angry bees. The men were splendidly steady and at the first ridge we lay down, but could not return the fire as a second ridge lay a hundred yards ahead. MacMunn's howitzers were lobbing shells over our heads with wonderful accuracy, and a great column of yellow smoke rose as each shell burst with a tremendous concussion.

The man on my right suddenly crumpled up with a gasping cough, and I signalled behind for my stretcher, the arrival of which caused a smacking of bullets all round me; I hastily rolled over and crawled behind a big rock. After about an hour, heavy firing broke out on the left flank, and I could see mounted men racing along under the double line of kopjes; the turning movement had evidently failed. Drake's guns now barked away on the left and covered the retirement of the Mounted Brigade. All this took a long time and we had been firing away steadily for nearly three hours, when I received an order that the regiment was to carry the position by assault; and that the left wing under my command was to open magazine fire on two shells being fired in rapid succession from the howitzers; then, when the supports which Colonel Romer had moved up behind us reached the line, to fix bayonets and charge the Boer position.

I gave the old Lee-Metford command "Magazine Fire, Ready!" Then came the two shells -crash-crash- and the roar of rapid fire. Presently from the right, that most heartening of sounds, British cheering, and I realised that Owen-Lewis was leading the right-half battalion in their first charge. I blew my whistle and yelled the order to cease fire and fix bayonets. Then I scrambled up, and found myself running down the rock-strewn kopje as I had never run in my life before, with two hundred howling Bury Militiamen behind me, expecting every moment to be shot in the back or stabbed in a more tender part by a bayonet! As we reached the top, still reeking with lyddite fumes, we saw, far below, Boers mounting in haste - Boers racing away in clouds of dust-loose horses and running men, amongst which a shell from MacMunn's howitzers-now firing at extreme range-would burst like a small volcano. All along the ridge, on both sides of me, stretched the line of cheering khaki figures, but not for long as, completely exhausted, they dropped down and crawled to rocks for shelter from the scorching sun now beating down like a furnace. Now the mounted troops were in full pursuit and orders came to move independently on Beddy's Farm some five miles distant on the plain below.’

Applin, who ended the war with command of a Mounted Infantry unit, was awarded the D.S.O. and twice mentioned in despatches (London Gazettes 10 September 1901 and 29 July 1902, refer).

Machine-Gun Expert - the Great War

Remaining in South Africa, it was at Bloemfontein in 1904 that Applin first gained extensive knowledge of machine-guns and their effective use, an interest briefly diverted by his appointment to the 15th Hussars as a Captain in July 1905, when he was detached to the General Staff and appointed Deputy Assistant Adjutant General for Musketry in Malta.

Rejoining his regiment in late 1906, he gained advancement to Major in June 1911, and it was in this period that he published Machine Gun Tactics. The first book ever to deal exhaustively with this subject - published by Hugh Rees in 1909 - it went through many subsequent printings as machine-guns came to dominate the battlefield, until Applin’s writings were eventually subsumed almost word for word into British army doctrine by 1917. It is somewhat ironic that this work was originally largely ignored by the War Office for being ‘ten years ahead of its time’, the bulk of the 1st edition being sold to the American War Department.

During the Great War, Applin served as Commandant of the School of Musketry in India prior to being appointed an Instructor at the Machine Gun Corps Training Centre at Grantham. On his promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel, he was ordered to France to take command of the machine-guns of II ANZAC Corps, in which capacity he lent valuable service in the battles of Messines and Passchendaele, and the Third Battle of Ypres. With the entry of the United States into the war, he headed the British Machine-Gun Mission to America and received the thanks of the Secretary of State for War, U.S.A., in 1918.

He was twice mentioned in despatches (London Gazettes 11 December 1917 and 12 December 1919 refer), in addition to being awarded the O.B.E. in 1919, but not before an ‘exchange of fire’ with the War Office a few days before the end of the war, when he listed his extensive experience and recent services versus more junior officers:

‘I have already commanded a Service M.G. Battalion from October 1916 to January 1917; I have already completed a month’s probation with an M.G. unit in the front line at Arras in February 1917 and was duly reported fit to hold the post of Corps M.G.O.; that I directed the operations of these units in five battles to the complete satisfaction of both my Corps and Army senior officers and was ‘mentioned’; that I am one of the most senior officers in the Corps, if not one of the most experienced officers in machine gunnery in the Army ... That the officer who was selected by the War Office as head of the British Gun Mission to the U.S.A. should, on his return, be sent as a ‘Probationer’ to a unit in the Field, conditional to the rank he held for two years of war, cannot be explained in any satisfactory manner ... ’


Post-war, Applin was given the Brevet of Lieutenant-Colonel and commanded the 14th King’s Hussars, prior to being placed on the Retired List in January 1921. He then entered politics and, after two failed attempts to gain a seat in parliament, was elected the Conservative M.P. for Enfield in September 1924. Ousted by the Labour candidate in the General Election of 1929, Applin retook the seat in October 1931, on the formation of a National Government. He retired in 1935, in which year he emigrated to South Africa, and he died at Howick, Natal in April 1957, aged 87.

Sold with copies of his autobiography Across the Seven Seas (Chapman & Hall, London, 1937), Machine Gun Tactics (Hugh Rees, London, 1910), and Lectures on Discipline and Training (Army War College, 1918), together with extensive copied research.