For Veterans Day: A Wartime Ride

Siegfried Sassoon, by George Charles Beresford (1915)

For this Veterans Day, the houndbloggers return to an old favorite, the English poet Siegfried Sassoon. Among foxhunters, he’s as well known for his delightful and nostalgic prose work Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man as he is among schoolchildren and British historians as one of England’s brilliant War Poets, whose style helped change the trajectory of modern poetry. Sassoon was a passionate foxhunter, especially during his youth and in the years immediately after World War I, though he often felt that the hunting side of his personality tended to distract from the greater work of his life, poetry.

Siegfried Sassoon’s grave at the churchyard in Mells. Photo by Graham Allard.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Sassoon joined up and took his hunter and point-to-point winner Cockbird with him to war. Sassoon wrote a great deal about Cockbird, and his picture can be found in many Sassoon biographies; our favorite is quite a famous picture of Cockbird standing in the Sassoon family’s yard, with Sassoon standing at his head and gazing with obvious pride at his hunting and racing partner. Alongside them is a small side table that, you can tell, has been carried out into the yard especially for the occasion of the photo, for on it is a magnificent silver racing trophy, the Colonel’s Cup–now lost (like Cockbird, alas), whereabouts unknown.

Hounds hunting on Veterans Day 2012.

In honor of Veterans Day, we hope you’ll page back through the blog and see our earlier posts, The Hounds of War: A Veterans Day for Hunting Soldiers and A Hunt for the Veterans. But today we give our page to Sassoon, not for the biting but deeply touching poems he penned in the trenches (some of which you can read here), but for an unusually peaceful wartime passage in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man:

“I was happy as I trudged along the lanes in the column, with my platoon chattering behind me and everything gilt with the sun’s good humour. Happier still when I borrowed the little black mare no one could ride and cantered about the open country by myself, which I did two or three afternoons a week. The black mare was well bred but had lost the use of one eye. She had a queer temper and had earned an evil reputation by kicking various officers off or bolting back to the transport lines with them after going half a mile quite quietly. She was now used as a pack-pony for carrying ammunition, but by gentle treatment I gained her confidence and she soon became a sort of active-service echo of my old favourites. Dick rode out with me as often as he could persuade the Transport Officer to let him have a horse.

Our Iroquois Sassoon, now retired, named after the poet.

“When riding alone I explored the country rather absent-mindedly, meditating on the horrors which I had yet to experience: I was unable to reconcile that skeleton certainty with the serenities of this winter landscape–clean-smelling, with larks in the sky, the rich brown gloom of distant woods, and the cloud shadows racing over the lit and dappled levels of that widespread land. And then I would pass a grey-roofed chateau, with its many windows and no face there to watch me pass. Only a bronze lion guarding the well in the middle of an overgrown lawn, and the whole place forlorn and deserted. Once, as I was crossing the main road from Abbeville to Beauvais, I watched the interminable column of a French army corps which was moving southward. For the first I saw the famous French field-guns–the ’75s.’

“But even then it wasn’t easy to think of dying. … Still less so when Dick was with me, and we were having an imitation hunt. I used to pretend to be hunting a pack of hounds, with him as my whipper-in. Assuming a Denis Milden manner (Denis was at Rouen with the cavalry and likely to remain there, in spite of the CO’s assumptions about open warfare), I would go solemnly through a wood, cheering imaginary hounds. After an imaginary fox had been found, away we’d scuttle, looking in vain for a fence to jump, making imaginary casts after an imaginary check, and losing our fox when the horses had done galloping. An imaginary kill didn’t appeal, somehow. Once, when I was emerging rapidly from a wood with loud shouts, I came round a corner and nearly knocked the Brigadier off his horse. He was out for a ride with his staff-captain; but no doubt he approved of my sporting make-believe, and I didn’t dare stop for apologies, since the Brigadier was a very great man, indeed. Dick enjoyed these outings enormously and was very much impressed by my hunting noises. The black mare seemed to enjoy it also.”

The guns in the wood. The Royal Artillery Hunt still hunts (within the law) on Salisbury Plain, not far from Sassoon’s former home at Heytesbury.

Years after the Great War, when Sassoon was living in Heytesbury, Wiltshire, and still hunting now and again with the packs around Salisbury Plain, there was a touching moment caught by Alec Waugh. Waugh, brother of the author Evelyn Waugh (of Brideshead Revisited fame, among many other wonderful books), recounted it in his book My Brother Evelyn and Other Portraits:

“I last saw Sassoon in October 1940 under ironically appropriate circumstances.

“A few weeks earlier I had been posted as staff-captain to the Petroleum Warfare Department, a branch of the Ministry of Mines, that under the dynamic inspiration of Geoffrey Lloyd made a considerable contribution to the war effort. … At that time we were chiefly concerned with the defensive uses to which oil might be put, flame-throwers, tank traps, flame on water. In mid-October we went down into the country to give a demonstration.

“It was what is called a typical, which is to say it was an exceptional, late autumn day; a day that started with mist and a chill in the air, a mist through which the sunlight began to break about eleven. By noon it was  summer hot. It was the prefect day to drive down into the country with a team of cameramen to film the demonstration and it was a perfect picnic site that had been chosen for the demonstration, at the head of a valley, with the grass very green with dew and the trees red and brown and yellow and the spire of a church showing between the branches of an orchard.

“We got down early, set out our cameras, and waited. The blitz had been heavy on the previous night. It was a relief to lie out in the grass, with the sun warm upon our faces, in a countryside untouched by war. The valley was quiet and deserted: nothing dramatic in the country’s history had happened here. It was strange to reflect that within an hour its slopes would be lined with red-hatted officers; a whistle would blow, the handles of the cameras would turn, and explosion would follow on explosion, the soft greensward would be scorched and ripped and scattered into a desert of smouldering fires and scarred iron.

Our horse Sassoon, also named for the poet and foxhunting man.

“The demonstration started at two o’clock. Within a quarter of an hour the beauty of the valley was destroyed and it was just as the high grade staff officers were moving to their cars, as the final informal conferences were breaking up, that a horseman, a civilian, came trotting by. This was, no doubt, a favorite ride of his. He had had no idea that this demonstration was to be held. It could scarcely be a pleasant surprise for him. I looked up, to note with a start of surprise that it was Sassoon.

“My first instinct was to run across and greet him; but a second, wiser instinct checked me. There was an inscrutable expression on that drawn, handsome face as it looked down on the charred and littered grass.

“What thoughts, I wondered, were moving behind that mask: how many different thoughts must be creating a mixed mood–memories of the last war and his revolt against it, his contempt for ‘scarlet majors at the base,’ his poems that had seemed then and later the battle call to a crusade; the sacrifice of his generation that had failed to prevent this second war, whose intensified horror was exemplified by these new engines of destruction, with himself a quarter of a century later, in his fifties and too old for service?

“It was kinder to leave him to that mood, those memories.”

A Hunt for the Veterans

IT IS Veterans’ Day in the United States, or Armistice Day if you are in England–a special day for the houndbloggers, too, who always celebrate the entwined histories of the military and the hunting hound.

A couple of years ago in this space and on this date, we visited with one of our favorite hunting soldiers, one P.W. Nickalls, officer of the Northants Yeomanry during what was long known as the Great War before, sadly, it became World War I. Nickalls’s squadron found sport in some unusual places,and it probably helped that the squadron commander was a former Master of the Pytchley.

Photo by Dave Traxler.

You can find Nickalls, as we did, in the footnotes of Joseph B. Thomas’s book Hounds and Hunting Through the Ages. We’d like to quote him here again, in honor of all veterans, with a special tip of the hat to our sporting brothers and sisters who serve and have served.

“Sometimes we hunted hares instead of foxes, and early in ’16 the owners of the land began to object to their crops being ridden over and their hares being killed. An order came from headquarters that hunting must cease. The Second in Command, who never paid much attention to what he scornfully called ‘red tape,’ was determined to hunt, come what may. One day we set out full of confidence, and had a very good hunt after a hare which we eventually bowled over by the high road. The hare, much too precious to be eaten by the hounds, was being waved over their heads in triumph, when round the corner and full of Red Hats came a big G.H.Q. car. It was too late to take cover or even to hide the hare–it was the Corps General himself. With a salute from all sides the big car disappeared. ‘What a sportsman!’ we exclaimed, for he must have seen exactly what happened. ‘Send him the hare for his supper,’ said the irrepressible Second in Command. No sooner said than done. A cheer A.D.C. told next day that the soup had been excellent, and brought us an invitation to dine at G.H.Q.

“In November, 1917, came the order for Italy … We decided to take 2 1/2 couple and try to pick up some more there. We trained to Ventimiglia and proceeded to trek from there to Savoni, the Colonel and the hounds leading the way. We were the advance guard, and the inhabitants rushed out and pelted us with flowers as the potential saviours of their country. They regarded the hounds with amusement but without surprise–had not they always heard that Englishmen were mad? So it was natural they should want hounds to fight the Austrians. When we got to the Italian front we at once began to make inquireies about hunting. The Treviso foxhounds had been broken up, but the hounds were being trencher-fed in the Venetian Plain. We soon located some and bought them for our pack. These with the ones we brought from France made a fair-sized pack, but the Italian foxes were by no means as good as the French, and we had much the best sport with the hares.”

The obituaries in Baily’s hunting directories for the years covering wartime provide a more somber glimpse into the lives and deaths of hunting servicemen. Fred Doughty, first whip to the South and West Wilts, was killed in action in 1915. So, too, was well-known Midlands hunting figure and Captain F.G.A. Arkwright, who was killed during World War I in “a flying mishap.”

A Master of the Ootacamund Hounds in India, Lieutenant Theodore Bailward, also was lost, and Commander C. F. Ballard of the Royal Navy, and “prominent member of the South Oxon Hunt,” drowned during World War I in the sinking of the Formidable. There is this note, too, in the Baily’s for 1915-1916, on the passing of Major G. W. Barclay of the Rifle Brigade:

“Son of Mr. E. E. Barclay and brother of Major M. E. Barclay, the Joint-Masters of the Puckeridge. Major Barclay was 24 years of age and was Master of the Eton pack and also of the Trinity Beagles at Cambridge. He received ten wounds at Ypres in July, 1915, and went again to the Front in March last.”

Photo by Dave Traxler

Killed also, the Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, one Major Morland J. Grieg. On a happier note, the following from 1917: “Captain Philip Godsall, of the Oxon Light Infantry, a follower of the Wynnstay Hounds, escapes from Germany.”

It makes for sobering reading as the list goes on and on. Doubtless there were hunting people lost on both sides of the conflict, and doubtless there still are hunting people stationed the world over in danger zones. If anyone has stories of these, the houndbloggers will be happy to post them.

Baily's Hunting Directories

In England, Baily’s reveals, hunting was much altered in wartime. “There were no lawn meets, no hunt breakfasts, no scarlet worn, and no fields of any size,” the directory reported for the season of 1914-1915. “Elderly men came out, a few–very few–ladies, a sprinkling of boys and girls in the school holidays, a small number of farmers, and last but not least a considerable number of soldiers on leave from the trenches, or in the convalescent state after wounds received.”

Hounds, too, and also game often faced destruction in wartime. In September 1939, after England declared war on Germany, the Royal Artillery pack, with the exception of seven couples, were destroyed. But in 1940 General John Frost helped preserve the then RA harrier pack by saving the lives of another pack, as he wrote in A Drop Too Much:

“It transpired that a small pack of harriers called the Quarme was about to be put down as it was found impossible to feed them owing to wartime shortages, so I decided to save them and keep them back at Bulford. I put them in with a couple and a half of what remained of the RA Harriers pack in their kennels at Bulford and had a lot of fun chasing hares on the (Salisbury) Plain.”

Photo by Dave Traxler

In her history of the RA hounds, Estelle Holloway also writes of World War II: “For the 1942-43 season, hounds were supported by the Airborne Division located at Syrencot House and hunted by the 4th Parachute Battalion. Meeting on the lawn at Syrencot, loyal and trustworthy hounds never spoke a word concerning Operation Overlord, or the formation of the 6th Airborne Division assault, planned to secure the left flank of the Allied Ivasion on Normandy beaches later in the war. During precious Saturday afternoon recreation, a jolly of foxhounds, harriers, and Major Uniacke’s beagles destroyed foxes feeding on the plague of rabbits and smallholders’ chickens, out of control now because shoots could no longer be organized by farmers.”

It should be noted here that the RA hunt–now a foxhound pack–no longer kills anything, plague of rabbits or not, due to the ban on hunting in England. The pack hunts legally, within the new law’s bounds, as a drag-hunting pack.

British officers, retired and current, and soldiers turned out in force at the Royal Artillery hunter trials in England in 2009. The Royal Artillery is one of the world's military regiments with a long and storied connection to both horses, hounds, and hunting.

In September 1917, with World War I raging, the Liddlesdale Foxhounds notified Baily’s they were down to just four couples: “All the staff are at the War.” In February, the Masters of Foxhounds Association had “decided on their own initiative substantially to reduce the number of days’ hunting in every hunting country throughout England and Wales. Having so decided, they were prepared to slaughter a very large proportion of the hounds in order to avoid any suggestion that food which ought to be used for human beings was taken in any large quantity for hounds.” Shortly afterwards, the Ribblesdale Buckhounds also destroyed the population of Lord Ribblesdale’s deer park and suspended its pack. Some packs struggled on much reduced, but many others disbanded or stopped hunting, some never to be revived. “Mr. Eustace Bouth’s Foxhounds,” someone sadly informed Baily’s, “will not hunt so long as the War lasts.”

Having said that, some new hunts also were formed by sporting military sent abroad, including the Royal Exodus Hunt of Baghdad, established between the World Wars.

Finally, returning to the human side, in an interesting document called “A Memorial Roll of the Officers of Alexandra Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment Who Died 1914-1919,” we found a poignant notice regarding Captain Guy Lister Nevile of the 10th and 2nd Battalions, who died on June 14, 1915, at Givenchy. He was 29. “They advanced until every man was killed, wounded, or pinned to the ground by rifle and machine gun fire,” a battlefield report notes. “Captain Nevile was shot while advancing carrying his hunting horn. He cannot be traced but we still cling to the hope that he may have come in wounded.”

He did not come in and has no known grave. But his name is on the Le Touret Memorial north of Bethune, the “Memorial Roll” advises.

Well, Captain Nevile, we remember you, and all of your hound-loving brothers and sisters who have served, here at the hound blog.