In January I posted this shot from Getty’s archive that claimed to show the British cavalry in action in North Africa in 1940. I knew the last British Army cavalry charge happened in Burma in 1942 and that the Queen’s Own Yorkshire Dragoons fought on horseback in Syria in 1941 but this was a mystery. My editor, Angus MacKinnon, who knows a thing or two about military history, was sceptical:
That photo was clearly staged for the camera – you can see as much from the neatness of the line of smoke discharges and the gas masks: no cavalryman worth his horse or spurs would have donned such a thing. And besides, most of the troop would have been carrying carbines, not pistols.
Then Jane Bevan, whose PhD on foxhunting and landscape may be of interest to you, got in touch with another possible explanation:
My father, John Foster, was in the Shropshire Yeomanry, as a tenant’s farmer’s son, and then N Somerset Yeomanry in WW2. They took their horses/hunters to war with them and weren’t ‘converted’ to mechanised transport until 1941.
Not sure if they were in N Africa with their horses (although they fought there subsequently) but they certainly had them in Palestine in 1941 and formed a rag-tag pack to hunt jackal. I remember Dad saying how much the horses loved the oranges grown around Jaffa which the soldiers crushed up as feed.
Jane’s father self-published a memoir of his life and she’s sent me a few pages about his time in the regiment. They begin just after the war breaks out, when John Foster’s regiment is called to Adderley Hall in Shropshire and given saddles (which they use as pillows) and horses, which arrive eight to a wagon at the local railway station. They were tied up in open lines, but
In the wet autumn it was not very long before they were in a terrible mess. The mud around the drinking troughs was so bad that we had to ride them bare back to drink, as we could not walk through the mud. It was not long before many of the horses contracted “strangles”, a very contagious disease that starts with a lump in the throat. The lump had to be cut open to let out the puss and the horse then becomes “broken winded”.
There’s a lovely story about a trooper warning a general who was inspecting the horses to beware of one sour mare, “I shouldn’t touch her on the arse Guvnor or er’ll kick your bloody ‘ead off.”
At this time, some of the Yeomanry regiments were shipped, horses and all, to France, south to the Mediterranean and by boat to Haifa to liaise with the twelve Regular Regiments in Palestine, “still equipped with a horse and a sword”. John remained in England, where the other Yeomanry horses were being sold off and the soldiers retrained to use tanks and artillery. He bought one of the horses, a bay gelding called Jack, who was six at the time but had been one of the strangles casualties at Adderley. He passed him on to his mother, who used Jack to do a twice-weekly shopping trip from Newton to Bridgnorth during the war.
John was in training as a cavalry officer – he was in the very last group trained for this at Weedon in Northamptonshire – which still meant riding:
We were regularly sent down the jumping lane over large obstacles, riding bare back with only a strap around the horse’s neck and, as all Army horses had hogged manes, there was nothing to hang on to. Horse and rider did not always arrive together at the end of the jumping lane! We were encouraged to go hunting with the Grafton Hounds, good training for future cavalry officers. We did not need telling twice!
The Commanding Officer, Colonel Borwick, gave a lecture every Saturday morning. He has been Master of the Pytchley Hounds and every week we were reminded how important it was to get hounds hard and fit before the start of cub hunting!
Late in August 1940 he was sent to Strathclyde to board the troop shop Moultan. The convoy sailed south past Africa and round the Cape to Durban where they restocked and John celebrated his 21st birthday with a shared can of beer. They also had a chance to go racing. Back in the convoy, they reached Cairo via the Suez Canal and disembarked to trek to Palestine where the North Somerset Yeomanry were waiting at Acre. He was put in charge of 32 men and their mounts and began a series of patrols along the Palestine-Syrian borders.
The cavalry training also inspired the bobbery pack of dogs – a boxer called Maurice and a Great Dane by the name of Fanny Adams – that he put together to hunt the local jackal. The hedges were cactus, the horses keen. At nearby Ramle, the CO of the Remount Depot, “Mouse” Townsend, had bred the “Ramle Vale” pack from an old foxhound he’d found locally (where on earth did it come from?) and Syrian Pointers. This breeding experiment had mixed results. John says “when they were hunting a line, some of his hounds would hunt normally while others stopped to ‘point’!” Townsend had a chestnut called The Clown, which he rode bitless when they hunted.
In spring 1942 the regiment was “relieved” of its horses and sent to Cairo “to be trained in Air Formation Signals”. At this point, the war gets rather more serious for John and there doesn’t seem to be any more hunting or larking about on horses.
So we still don’t know what’s going on in the Getty photo, but have maybe raised a question about where it was shot. If anyone has any more leads or stories, do get in touch.
While I was working on this blog post, Caroline Rutter got in touch and pointed out that the great British showjumper, Colonel Harry Llewellyn (remember him from Pat Smythe days?) was also in the Middle East at the time. He served with the Warwickshire Yeomanry and took horses called Peter and Prince with him when he arrived in January 1940. They were based at Rosh Tinna near Lake Tiberias. On horseback, his squadron charged a group of spahis who were trying to rustle Palestinian cattle.