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Gerald Charles Binsteed - a remarkable linguist and military hero

written by Sue Byrne 2013


Gerald Charles Binsteed, born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1885, was the son of Major Charles Binsteed a Surgeon-Major in the Indian Medical Service. He was sent to Wellington College, a boarding school for orphan sons of army officers. He entered The Royal Military College in Sandhurst in Surrey, England, in 1903 as a Gentleman Cadet where two years later he took the sword of honour and passed out first. He was then commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Essex Regiment in the British Army in 1905. The following year he served as a scouting intelligence officer at the Curragh, a British military garrison in Ireland. He was an able linguist becoming a1st Class Interpreter of French in1908 and in Russian in 1911. Later he was to study Chinese. In May 1914, he was appointed for Special Employment at the War Office, but after the outbreak of war, went to the Front with his Regiment, was gazetted Major 18 March, and was killed in action at Le Gheer, 8 April 1915.

It was his interest in languages that seemed to have taken him first to Russia and then to China and in turn to Mongolia. The Essex Regimental records show he was given a secondment to study Russian in January 1911.[2] It appears that it was through his study of Russian that he became fascinated with Mongolia, this being heightened after Mongolia declared its independence following the collapse of the Qing Empire in late 1911. Later communication clearly shows that he read widely on Mongolia in Russian sources.

So it was that he began his travels in Asiatic Russia in 1911. D Braham, the London Times correspondent in Peking, mentions that he ‘was wandering’ around this area in a note dated January 1912 to an ex-Times correspondent, George Morrison.[3] It seems he travelled to Urga from Kiakhta in the first part of 1912 and, possibly in the same year, travelled to Urga following the route via Mukden, Hailar and Barga using Russian maps and information sources.[4] Little is yet known of these visits such as exactly when he went, how long he was there and who he met.

His presence in Peking in 1912 is explained again through his exceptional ability and desire to learn languages. At the end of 1911 he was given a second secondment from the army to study Chinese. These two periods of ‘time out’ to study languages are termed by the army as Extra Regimental Employment and were only given to those officers who had the ambition and ability to do interesting things. In this case the Army had clearly sent him to be trained and must, therefore, have endorsed his employment beyond the confines of the British Empire.[5]

In August 1912 he wrote a short hand-written report,[6] which he submitted to the British Legation at Peking. The substance of the report was intelligence he had received by letter from Haisang Gun, someone he seems to have met when in Urga earlier in the year. The principal theme of the letter was the Mongols distrust of the Russians and their desire to have another power, preferably England, to balance the Russians. A particular issue of Mongol concern was the Russians concessions for all gold (mining) on the east of the Urga Kiakhta line. Mention is made of a secret gold deposit of great wealth west of this line known only to Mongol princes and of their wish to ‘divulge and concede to a foreign company, preferably English’. Binsteed also reported that the Russians were giving the Mongols considerable assistance in the formation of an army.

Binsteed submitted a much longer report on Mongolia to the British Legation in March 1913 entitled Notes by Lieutenant Binsteed on the Mongolian Situation.[7] The Head of the British Legation sends it to the British Foreign Secretary with a note explaining ‘(these) have been prepared by Lieutenant Binsteed of the Essex Regiment, and have, I understand, been chiefly drawn from Russian sources.’ He goes on to say that ‘Lieutenant Binsteed has passed some time at Urga, and has acquired a knowledge of Mongolian affairs, which is altogether remarkable.’

In May 1913 Binsteed was once again travelling in the direction of Mongolia. In his diary of the trip[8], he describes this expedition as ‘Journey the Second’, and expresses his intention to write a book on Mongolia. It emerges that he had set out to travel to Dolonor but was prevented from doing so by H E Hsuing Hsi ling (also known as the Ta Shuai or Great Commander) the Tu T’ung at Jehol. It seems that he had made contact with George Morrison in Peking because, on this trip, Morrison provided him with a letter of introduction to the Tu T’ung. The heart of this diary is the time he spent with the Mongols surveying the 12 Buddhist temples. Indeed, such seemed to be his interest in all things Mongolian that he lived in two separate monasteries over the week he spent visiting and recording the 12 temples.

It seems he retreated back to Peking after this thwarted journey but was travelling again in late June this time on a short trip to Kalgan,[9] the main trade entry city to Inner and Outer Mongolia. The diary of this journey consists of very sparse entries principally about British and other foreign trading companies in the city. Again his interest in Mongolia is manifested by a detailed page at the end of the diary entitled ‘KALGAN’S TRADE with Mongolia.’ He observes that at the time of his visit ‘trade is at a standstill as regards the movement of goods between Kalgan and all parts of Outer Mongolia.’

By the 1st August 1913, Binsteed was once again en route to Mongolia seemingly taking the same route he had used in 1912. (In several sections of the diaries covering this journey[10], he compares the situation he finds in 1913 with the situation in 1912.) On this journey he engaged a Mongolian interpreter called Baljir who was a monk of the Great Lama Temple of Peking. Mr Gamboyeff, a Russian subject who had lived for many years in Peking, and whose father was a Buriat, introduced him to Baljir.

The diaries of this journey are detailed and cover a wide variety of subjects with considerable emphasis on commerce, trade and other economic activities. It was on this journey that he spent a week in the Sait Südjict Gung Hoshun on the Kerulen river, about 60 miles below Tsetsen Khan Urgo and 160 miles above San Beisa Urgo (Kerulen Urgo). This came about because Baljir, his Mongolian guide, requested time to see his family who he had not seen for 16 years. The paper Binsteed wrote on his time in the Südjict Gung [11] gives a vivid account of life in a Mongolian monastery at the time, which is well illustrated with a set of delightful photographs.

The diary entries stop when Binsteed reaches Urga on September 16th. Unfortunately he has not written an account of his stay though there are some photographs. From Urga he travelled up to Kiakhta. He produced a hand drawn map of this journey[12] on which he shows the route he took in 1913 via the Iro Goldfields and Kornokovka noting that in 1912 he had taken a more westerly route along the telegraph route via Mankhatai. He completed this journey in October 1913 returning to Peking by rail.

In his opening paragraph in the paper he later wrote about his stay in the Lamasery, Binsteed declares his wish to write about Mongolia: “In August, September, and October, 1913, I was engaged on one of a series of journeys in Mongolia, which I hope, if I am given the opportunity to complete them, will enable me to collect sufficient data for a work about this little-known country and its people, a subject upon which English literature is perhaps even poorer than that of the other Western European nations, and certainly far poorer than that of Russia.”

Notwithstanding Binsteed’s own determination to gather information about Mongolia so he could write a book, it appears that his 1913 journey was taken in the full knowledge of the British Legation at Peking if not at their request. In November 1913 when forwarding the first part of a report on his journey concerning the political and commercial situation in Mongolia to the British Foreign Secretary, Mr Alston, Head of British Legation at Peking, described Binsteed as ‘a language officer attached to His Majesty’s Legation’.[13] In forwarding the report Mr Alston writes: “Lieutenant Binsteed in addition to having undertaken two previous journeys in Mongolia, is possessed of a fluent knowledge of the Russian Language, and has thus been in a position to converse freely with the Russian authorities at Urga, and with other Russian officials who are endeavouring to guide the fortunes of the semi-independent Mongolian state.” The second extract of the report, sent 11 days after the first, deals with agriculture, mining, fisheries, hunting, geography and means of communication.[14]

By May 1914 Lieutenant Binsteed was back in Britain and had been appointed for Special Employment at the War Office. After the outbreak of World War 1 he went to the Front with his Regiment, was gazetted Major 18 March, and was killed in action at Le Gheer, Belgium, on 8th April 1915. He greatly distinguished himself with his gallantry in the field, and was twice mentioned in Field Marshall Sir John French’s Despatches [London Gazette, 4 and 10 Dec 1914], and was one of the first officers to receive the Military Cross [London Gazette, 1 Jan 1915].

In March that year he had been elected as a member of the Royal Asiatic Society.[15] At some stage he had become a member of the China Society and was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society from 1911. In October 1914 his paper, Life in a Khalkha Steppe Lamasery, was published in the Royal Asiatic Society journal. In the last year or two of his life he wrote several papers some of which were published after his death. With his untimely death at the age of 30, Binsteed was never able to write the book on Mongolia that he had set his heart on. But his papers, journals and photographs give us a rich insight into a little known period of British Mongolian relations as well as life in Mongolia at a critical period in its history.


Appendix:

Appendix A

Binsteed’s writings on his journeys to Mongolia and Russia

1.      1912 Binsteed Report to British Legation FO 228/2399 

2.      The Tribal and administrative System of Mongolia Far Eastern Review, (Shanghai and Manila JULY 1913)

3.      Life in a Khalkha Steppe Lamasery JRAS, 23 (October 1914), 847-900

4.      Papers of G C Binsteed, 1913, comprise five journals of travel in Inner Mongolia with Captain Holme and in the Mongolian Republic, 1913. RGS – IBG ar SSC/5

5.      The China Year Book ed H T M Bell and H G W Woodhead. 1919-1920. See article by G C Binsteed entitled ‘Mongolia’

6.      Russian Policy in Northern Manchuria Lt G C Binsteed Undated[16]

7.      China Year Book 1914 609-643

8.      Some topographical Notes on a Journey through Barga and North-East Mongolia, Journal of The Royal Geographical, 44-6 (December 1915), 571-577

9.      China Year Book 1916, 564-602

10.   China Year Book 1919, 575-612

11.    Departmental Papers: Political and Secret Separate (or Subject) Files  IOR/L/PS/10  1902-1931

a.      File 1235/1913 Pt 1 The situation in Mongolia IOR/L/PS/10/364, Pt 1 1913

b.      File 1235/1913 Pt 2 China: Mongolian situation IOR/L/PS/10/364, Pt 2 1914-1915

c.      File 1235/1913 Pt 3 China: Mongolia; British commercial interests IOR/L/PS/10/365 1913-1916

 

Appendix B

Binsteed, Gerald Charles, Major, 2nd Battalion, “pompadours’ Essex regiment, only son of the late Major Charles Henry Federick Binsteed, 52nd Oxfordshire L.I and Ist Madras Lancers, by his wife, Consuela (Hanover Court, Hanover Square, W.), daughter of Gerald de Wilton, Surgeon-Major, Indian Medical Service; b. Cairo 7 August 1885; educated Wellington College[17] and Sandhurst[18]; gazetted to the Essex Regiment, 20th May 1905, promoted Lieutenant, 6th March 1910, and Captain 15th November 1914; served with the Mounted Infantry at Longmoor and Malta, and was scouting Intelligence Officer at the Curragh[19]. In May 1914, he was appointed for Special Employment at the war Office, but after the outbreak of war, went to the Front with his Regiment, was gazetted Major 18 March, and was killed in action at Le Gheer, 8 April 1915; unm. Capt. Binsteed greatly distinguished himself with his gallantry in the field, and was twice mentioned in Field Marshall Sir John French’s Despatches [London Gazette, 4 and 10 Dec 1914], and was one of the first officers to receive the Military Cross [London Gazette, 1 Jan 1915]. At Wellington he represented his school at Bisley and was the winner of the mile race, and at Sandhurst took the sword of honour and passed out first. He also won the Subalterns’ half mile at Malta and the Officer’s mile race in the All Ireland Military Athletic Meeting at the Curragh. Capt. Binsteed was an able linguist, and passed as an interpreter in French, Russian and Chinese, and was a member of the Geographical Society, China Society and Asiatic Society, and a contributor to the China Year Book, ‘The Far Eastern Review”[20], etc.

Source: De Ruvigny's Roll Of Honour Vol 1[21] From ww1photos.com



[1] Picture from ww1photos.com

[2] email correspondence with Ian Hook, Keeper of the Essex Regiment Museum, Chelmsford, June 2013

[3] Footnote on p.50 in The Correspondence of G E Morrison 1912-1920 by George Earnest Morrison, Hui-Min Lo. G C Binsteed (d.1917), British soldier, of whom D D Braham wrote to Morrison on 26 January 1912: ‘a Lieutenant Binsteed is wandering around Asiatic Russia and sending us articles, some of which we hope to publish. He may get as far as Peking, and if so he will call on you.’ Apparently a gifted linguist, Binsteed, drawing on his own experience as well as information from books in many languages, including Russian, helped Morrison to compile a long and detailed memorandum on Mongolia, which Morrison sent to Lu Cheng-hsiang and Ts’ai T’ing-kan in order to aid the Chinese Government in formulating its Mongolian policy. It was not printed in the selection. Binsteed was still young when killed in action during the European War.

[4] Photographs in Royal Geographical Society dated 1912

[5] email correspondence with Ian Hook, Keeper of the Essex Regiment Museum, Chelmsford, June 2013

[6] FO 228/2399 Report on Information from Outer Mongolia Handwritten report by Lt G C Binsteed

[7] IOR/L/PS/10/364 File 1235/1913 Pt 3 1889

[8] SSC/5 RGS/IBG ARCHIVES LONDON 1913 5 Volumes Binsteed Volume 1 JOURNEY THE SECOND Jehol to the Kerchin Aimak 9th May 1913 to May 26th

[9] SSC/5 RGS/IBG ARCHIVES LONDON 1913 5 Volumes Binsteed Volume 2 Visit to Kalgan June 27th to July 1st 1913

[10] SSC/5 RGS/IBG ARCHIVES LONDON 1913 5 Volumes Binsteed Volume 3-5 August 1st 1913 to Sept 16th 1913

[11] Life in a Khalkha Steppe Monastery Journal of the Asiatic Society 1914

[12] RGS-IBG mr China S.148 Lt G C Binsteed Route map from Urga to Kiakhta

[13] File 1235/1913 IOR/L/PS/10/364, Pt 2 1914-1915 4977 Extract from a report by Lieutenant Binsteed on a Journey from Hailar to Urga, and then to Kiakhta

[14] File 1235/1913 IOR/L/PS/10/364, Pt 2  1914-1915 5074 Extracts from Report by Lieutenant Binsteed regarding his Journey through Mongolia

[15] Royal Asiatic Society Notes of the Quarter March 10, 1914 Lt G C Binsteed, Essex Regiment elected member of the Society

[16] British documents on foreign affairs: reports and papers from the Foreign Office confidential print. Pt 1: From the mid-nineteenth century to the First World War. Series E: Asia, 1860-1914

[17] Wellington College was founded in 1853 as a charitable educational institution for orphans of army officers.

[18] The Royal Military College in Sandhurst in Surrey, England, is where all Officers in the British Army were trained at the time Binsteed attended, to take on the responsibilities of leading soldiers.

[19] The Curragh was a British Military Garrison in Ireland

[20] Far Eastern Review was an American era periodical published in the Philippines during the early 20th century.


Linked toMaj Gerald Charles Binsteed, MC

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