The Hounds of War: A Veterans Day for Hunting Soldiers

RA Officers at the RA hunter trials 2009

British officers, retired and current, and soldiers turned out in force at the Royal Artillery hunter trials in England last month. The Royal Artillery is one of the world’s military regiments with a long and storied connection to both horses, hounds, and hunting.

IT’S Veteran’s Day if you’re in America, Remembrance Day if you’re in the United Kingdom, and so it’s a good day to reflect on the deep historical connection between the armed forces and hunting.

It’s less obvious now than it used to be, but you can still see outcrops in a few remaining military (or military-associated) packs, particularly in England. One example: The School of Infantry Beagles, now merged with another pack and called the Wiltshire and Infantry Beagles, retains its links with the infantry school and is a member of the Army Beagling Association (the mere fact that there is such a thing as the Army Beagling Association tells you a lot about the entwined history of pack hounds and soldiers). Britain’s last surviving military foxhound pack, the Royal Artillery Hunt, became a drag hunt after the 2005 hunt ban in England. The hunt’s country is Salisbury Plain, England’s main military training ground, and it is not at all unusual, when riding with the Royal Artillery hounds, to come upon tanks and shellholes. There are few jumps there, the main obstacles being slit trenches and the impressively deep tank tracks that must be navigated safely. And fragments of ammunition and military hardware are common, as parts of Salisbury Plain are impact areas for artillery practice.

For a little more on the history of British soldiers’ involvement in hunting with pack hounds, this is an interesting source, from a Parliamentary exploration of the whys and wherefores of the hunting soldier.

In the United States, the most notable military-foxhunting link is through the Fort Leavenworth Hunt, organized in 1926 by the 10th Cavalry regiment. The pack was disbanded during World War II but was reconstituted in 1964, and today still proudly counts military members among its numbers–including veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The hounds are American hounds.

Current Joint MFH at FLH, COL Joyce DiMarco

Current Joint MFH at FLH, COL Joyce DiMarco

Back in the day, by which we mean before World War II, there were far more American military hunts, including the Artillery Hunt (Ft. Sill), Cavalry Hunt (Ft. Riley), Infantry Hunt (Ft. Benning), and 1st Cavalry Division Hunt (Ft. Bliss).

For more fascinating history of military foxhunts, especially in the United States, try the blog at A Horse Soldier’s Thoughts.

Xenophon, the Greek military leader and horseman who lived from around 430 to about 354 B.C., wrote of hunting:

The advantages that those who have been attracted by this pursuit will gain are many. For it makes the body healthy, improves the sight and hearing, and keeps men from growing old; and it affords the best training for war.  … In an attack on the enemy they will be able to go for him and at the same time to carry out the orders that are passed along, because they are used to doing the same things on their own account when capturing the game. … In the rout of the enemy they will make straight for the foe without a slip over any kind of ground, through habit. If part of their own army has met with disaster in ground rendered difficult by woods and defiles or whatnot, they will manage to save themselves without loss of honour and to save others.

I have heard far more recent commanding officers who have led troops in modern warfare say they still feel hunting provides valuable training today.

KIng's Troop rider on a gun horse

Members of the Royal Artillery’s elite King’s Troop ride the powerful gun horses in competition as well as in their ceremonial duties.

One, a former Master and huntsman at the Royal Artillery, told me that there were two important things, in particular, that soldiers still can learn from the hunt field: knowledge of the land and the wind and how to use them to their own advantage, and how to improvise and change plans under pressure when, as happens both in hunting and in war, the original battle plan falls apart due to conditions on the ground.

(Incidentally, the officer/MFH/huntsman in question also tells a fantastic tale of his days stationed in Cyprus, when his appointed “fox” for the drag hunt mislaid the line—right down the middle of land held by the Greeks on one side and land occupied by their enemies the Turks on the other. He said he felt he had little choice but to stand up tall in his irons and blow his horn for all he was worth as the hounds went on a screaming run through what should have been a sort of no man’s land. The Turks, he said, remained silent, but the Greeks all stood up and cheered. Nobody, happily, fired.)

Tank and coop at the RA hunter trials

Not your usual coop! The final jump at the Royal Artillery hunter trials.

Time with hounds wasn’t only considered good training at home; it was also good sport for troops–or at least their officers–abroad.

The Crusaders took hounds with them, and King Edward III took 60 couple of “large hounds,” as well as greyhounds, for hunting purposes when he invaded France in 1359. In 1812, during the Salamanca campaign, the Duke of Wellington “encouraged his officers to follow hounds, which he kept during this campaign,” according to Hounds and Hunting Through the Ages, by Joseph Thomas, MFH. When forced to retreat, Wellington wrote to his adjutant general: “If you should be pressed by the enemy, and if you should move, take care that all our stores and people (including my hounds at Arevalo) move off.”

Tales of hound packs on the Western Front during World War I also abound.

Again, from Thomas’s book, an account by P.W. Nickalls, an officer of the Northants Yeomanry:

We first had a couple of harriers and a beagle; in 1916, we moved down the line to a village called Harbarque, behind Arras. Someone told us there of a farmer in the neighborhood who had hounds before the war and still kept some. I went to see him and found he still had 50 couple of sorts. Greatly to my surprise I saw four couple of very light-colored hounds that I thought I recognized. Sure enough, they came from my friend Herman Tiarks, Master of the Mendip in Somerset. I knew the brand of old, and returned in triumph with all four couple. Then our regular fox hunting began.

The best hunt of all was when we killed our fox close under Mt. Saint Eloi. … I was riding a good English hunter, but even he was getting beat, and we were longing for the end to come. We were riding straight for the second line. As I jumped into a road I met a party going down to the trenches. The officer halted them, and was waving his tin hat in wild excitement. ‘You will have him in three fields.’ he yelled, and sure enough we did.

There are also numerous documented accounts of British officers, one a Brigadier-General, in the Great War who rallied their men by blowing their hunting horns.

And George Washington (above, in the snazzy hat) was well-known as a keen hunter and hound man who even forgave one of his French foxhounds, Vulcan, when he stole an entire ham right out of the Mt. Vernon kitchen just as a large formal dinner party was sitting down to dine. According to Washington’s butler, a fight ensued between hound and kitchen staff, but Vulcan came out the best and galloped off with the ham in his jaws. Upon being told, Washington laughed.

And one last piece of evidence for soldiers’ historic affinity for hounds and hunting, as described by Thomas:

“In the current year, 1928, we find this enthusiasm reflected on a piece of paper attached to the will of Captain Arthur Marmaduke Whitaker, late Duke of Wellington’s regiment, which reads:

‘Wishes for my wife to carry out at my death: I trust (should it be suggested) that if I die in the hunting season, hounds will not be stopped on my account, as I never can understand why people should be made more miserable than necessary.’

Here’s to you, Captain Arthur Marmaduke Whitaker–and to all of you who serve and have served!

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3 thoughts on “The Hounds of War: A Veterans Day for Hunting Soldiers

  1. Pingback: For Veterans Day: A Wartime Ride | Full Cry: A Hound Blog

  2. Pingback: A Hunt for the Veterans | Full Cry: A Hound Blog

  3. Pingback: Houndbloggers Abroad: A Royal Artillery meet « Full Cry: A Hound Blog

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