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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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.

Who would be a Master?

Sure, you get the title and the buttons ... but you'll be expected to contribute time, treasure, diplomacy, and land in return.

Not long ago I heard a member of a hunt remark that those who join hunt clubs and ride to hounds regularly “make a lot of effort and spend a hell of a lot of money on the hunt.”

“We buy horses, we buy trailers, we take time away from our families, we have to arrange babysitters,” she said.

Fair enough. Hunt members pay dues and also spend a lot of time and a good bit of cash to enjoy their favorite hobby, much as opera buffs spend for tickets to hear their favorite arias and die-hard football fans invest in season tickets. Hunt clubs are, after all, clubs, and the support of hunt members is a crucial and appreciated part of the sport. But as you pay the feed bill for your own horse or pick up the phone hoping your babysitter is available this Saturday, spare a thought for the Master! The same is true for him or her (Masters, too, feed horses and need babysitters), but on top of that they have piles of hidden costs and work that hunt members rarely see.

Given the challenges of the modern Mastership, from acreage to animal rights activism, it wasn’t all that surprising when a 2009 article in England’s sporting magazine The Field revealed why good Masters are becoming a scarce–and urgently needed–commodity among hunts.

“The role has become arguably less glamorous, more nerve-wracking, and more open to criticism,” The Field reported, adding that in addition to the traditional responsibilities of providing land, clearing it, and maintaining relations with landowners, today’s Master also must be a public relations leader and legal expert, as well, on subjects ranging from employment law to animal welfare standards.

Joe Cowen, a Master of the Fernie since 1972, told the magazine that “there is a level of responsibility that comes with being a Master, which is sometimes forgotten.”

On the front line of landowner relations

Unlike the hunt member quoted at the top of this page, Masters’ expenditures of time and money don’t only go directly to their own enjoyment of the sport; they must also lay out time and treasure for things that benefit the hunt first, and themselves only indirectly. A disgruntled landowner blames the hunt for an injury to his best bull because it crashed through a fence when the hunt rode by a field away? Chances are, the Master (or Masters) will pull out their personal checkbooks to make good the veterinary expenses, all in the name of keeping landowners compensated and happy–and the hunt country open.

“In one respect, all Masters of every generation are united: they have always been expected to pay for everything and please everybody,” wrote Frederick Watson in his lighthearted classic Hunting Pie. “A Master must therefore be a millionaire, an Adonis, a loss to the diplomatic service, and possessed of all the virtues and aspirations of the early Christian martyrs with none of their ultimate recompense.”

The writer and famed hunting authority Otho Paget evidently agreed, noting that “to find these qualities combined is well-nigh impossible, so we must give up hope of ever finding the perfect Master, and content ourselves with ordinary men. It is a thankless task, and it has always been a wonder to me that anyone can be found willing to accept the responsibilities.”

Very high on the list of these responsibilities is maintaining good contact with landowners and keeping hunt country open.

Keeping country open, and, if possible, expanding it, has been a constant worry for Masters for almost as long as people have ridden behind hounds, and it’s become a far more pressing concern in the last 50 years, as development and highways have closed in steadily on the countryside. For centuries, it’s been understood that anyone offered the title of Master should be prepared to bring land and/or money to the table, a responsibility that is probably even more important now as hunt country grows increasingly scarce.

A hunt's country belongs, in fact, to its landowners, and a large part of a Master's work involves keeping that land open to the hunt--and undamaged by it.

When tracts of hunt country come on the market, Masters frequently will be among the buyers. If they don’t purchase it themselves, chances are they’ll be working hard to recruit hunt-friendly buyers, and preferably hunt members, to secure the land, and thus the hunt’s future invitation to continue riding over it. A Master’s status as a landowner also can improve his credibility with his neighbors in the hunt country. They are less likely to take seriously someone who arrives from town, having no previous contact with the owners or land other than by riding over it, and seeking concessions from them for the hunt’s sport.

“If a man is not a landowner in the country he hunts, he ought to buy a small quantity, and thus have a personal interest in the soil,” Paget wrote in The Master. “Farmers always prefer a man at the head of the hunt who through his own experience can understand and sympathize with them in their troubles. The Master who does not know wheat or seeds from weeds is not in a very good position to warn his field from damaging those crops, and there are many other useful hints he will pick up by a closer acquaintance with the land. I do not say that a man is not eligible to be an M.F.H. if he owns none of the soil in his hunt, but it would be a point in his favor.”

Landowner relations are the primary concern of any Master, and most of a Master’s most important duties trace back, one way or another, to maintaining the hunt country and good relationships with the people who own that country.

One of the finest descriptions of the necessary (and generally invisible) work Masters quietly do to keep their hunt’s hooves on (and game readily available in) good country comes from the English author Siegfried Sassoon’s famous hunting memoir, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. The book was published in 1929 and describes Sassoon’s youthful hunting exploits much earlier, before World War I broke out in 1914. It’s noteworthy that a Master’s duties, like much else in the tradition of foxhunting, have changed very little from that time. Speaking of Denis Milden, the fictionalized name for the actual Atherstone Hunt Master and huntsman Norman Loder, Sassoon wrote after one hard hunting day:

It was after half-past six when he came in. … He threw off his wet hunting coat and slipped into a ragged tweed jacket which the silent servant Henry held out for him. As soon as he had swallowed a cup of tea he lit his pipe and sat down at his writing-table to open a pile of letters. He handed me one, with a grimy envelope addressed to ‘Mr. Milden, The Dog Kennels, Ringwell.’ The writer complained that a fox had been the night before and killed three more of his pullets, and unless he could bring the dogs there  soon there wouldn’t be one left and they’d really have to start shooting the foxes, and respectfully begging to state that he was owed fifteen shillings by the Hunt for compensation. Many of Denis’s letters were complaints from poultry keepers or from small farmers whose seeds or sown ground had been ridden over when the land was wet. I asked what he did with these, and he replied that he sent them on to old McCosh, the Hunt secretary. ‘But when they look like being troublesome I go over and talk to them myself.’

I found afterwards that he had a great gift for pacifying such people, to whom the Hunt might have been an unmitigated nuisance if it hadn’t been an accepted institution. The non-hunting farmers liked to see the Hunt, but they disliked the marks it left on their land. The whole concern depended on the popularity and efficiency of the Master, and the behavior of the people who hunted. …

Watching him open those letters was an important step in my sporting education. Until then I had not begun to realize how much there was to be done apart from the actual chivvying of the foxes. Thenceforward I became increasingly aware that a successful day’s hunting was the result of elaborate and tactful preparations, and I ceased to look upon an angry farmer with a pitchfork as something to be laughed at.

The quiet diplomat and sponsor

The angry farmer shaking his pitchfork at the passing hunt is the very thing a Master works to avoid, and generally–often because farmers do not want their business gossiped around the hunt country, where their neighbors are sure to hear it–he or she must accomplish that task quietly, tactfully, and without compromising the hunt’s position (e.g., without losing the privilege of crossing the farmers’ land). Such dealings can be fraught with risk: if a hunt member forgets to shut a gate and a landowner’s cattle get loose upon the adjacent road, it’s the Master who faces the task of getting the entire hunt back in the landowner’s good graces as a result of a someone else’s mistake. Discretion is an absolute requirement: if personal discussions between a Master and a landowner get out into general circulation, embarrassing the landowner, the diplomatic channel between hunt and landowner can close for good.

"There are very few young men who can afford to undertake the responsibility which devolves upon a Master and entails a large personal expenditure, in addition to the guarantee provided by the average hunt committee," Henry Higginson, MFH, wrote back in 1948. Since then, the Master's job has remained expensive and become even more complicated, thanks to problems like suburban development.

The list of expenses begins with land and landowner-related costs (such as the aforementioned compensation, as well as friendly gestures, like sending over tickets to a favorite sporting event, hosting a landowner-appreciation event, donating to a farmer’s favorite charity, or sponsoring a rural children’s baseball team), but they do not end there.

Most hunt budgets do not cover the actual expenses required to run a hunt program, and Masters are expected to step up to the plate and cover privately any expenses outside the hunt budget, whether for veterinary care to hounds, land-clearing equipment like weedeaters and chain saws, or the costs of allowing the hunt to travel to hound shows.

For prestigious packs that hunt several days a week, those extra-budgetary costs can mount quickly, even into the tens of thousands of dollars. Which is why the Mastership has never been regarded as a job for the fainthearted or the faint-bank-accounted. Writing around 1950, M.F.H. Henry Higginson said: “In the old days, the cost of hunting used to be estimated at 1,000 pounds sterling per day for each day per week hunted. Today, particularly in the case of the so-called fashionable countries, the outlay is far in excess of that figure, owing to the increased cost of forage and labour. It is false economy trying to feed hounds on anything but the best … It is no use expecting horses to do their work on anything but the first quality oats and hay. Last but not least, if one does not employ both sufficient — and efficient– labour, one will not get good results.”

Another requirement for a Master: hide like a rhino.

“Everyone who comes out feels entitled to criticize and find fault with the Master,” Higginson observed. “It is … a common enough occurrence, and the only way that I know to counteract such annoyances is to cultivate a very thick skin.”

You don’t have to be a Master to help your hunt

If, like the houndbloggers, your finances don’t quite rise to the requirements of a Mastership, thank heavens there are plenty of other ways you can help ensure your hunt’s wellbeing! Join your hunt supporters’ club. Host a fundraiser that benefits the hunt. Donate to the annual Christmas Fund for your hunt’s staff. Volunteer to walk puppies or help socialize the young hounds at the kennel. Host a hunt breakfast or post-hunt tailgate. Sponsor the purchase of a new weedeater or chain saw to help with clearing country–and volunteer to help when your Masters clear the hunt country and conduct fence repairs in the summer. Join one of your hunt’s committees and pledge to pay any expenses you incur doing work for that committee.

And, above all, be gracious and friendly to landowners!

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!