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.”

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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!