World War Two Cavalry Training – and Jackal Hunting in Palestine

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.

The Flesh of Foals

When the 2013 horsemeat scandal broke I was surprised and then realised I had nothing to be surprised about. By that stage I’d been researching the history of horsemeat on and off for seven years for The Age of the Horse, and I’d noticed a pattern going back centuries both to these episodes and to public reaction to it. It’s the same in America in the nineteenth century, in France in the seventeenth century, in England in the fifteenth century… and so on.

This Pathé news reel from 1948 is almost a checklist:

  • horsemeat passed off as “blackmarket steaks” and “veal” in cheap restaurants
  • the meat men or kill buyers are unconcerned with the welfare of the horses
  • “a traffic so alien” to the locals

I think Pathé and the British public of 1948 may be protesting a wee bit too much with their “veal, the flesh of foals” and “sinister trade”: horsemeat was eaten in Britain before, during and after World War Two – it was one way to cope with rationing. Yorkshiremen were even nicknamed “kicker eaters” because of their taste for chevaline. Pathé was, however, right that a tremendous number of horses were slaughtered in the late 1940s, and that the Shire and Clydesdale would be facing extinction in a few decades.

Horses were still needed by farmers at the time because we were still dealing with fuel shortages and the era of the tractor had not yet fully begun. They were also still important to the railway system – that same year, British railways kept 9,000 working horses. However, the urban market pretty much collapsed in the late 1940s and so we had a horsemeat scandal – only this time we ate them ourselves, rather than dispatching them to Belgium on “sausage boats” as we did in the 1920s.

Fast forward five decades and we still haven’t worked out what to do with unwanted horses, and we find ourselves eating them in lasagna.

Sparky the Pit Pony’s Days in the Sun

The last working horses at a colliery in Britain retired – astonishingly – in 1999. Here’s a story from The Mirror about one of the other “last pit ponies”, Sparky:

Since his retirement in 1988, Sparky has been taking it easy at the National Coal Mining Museum and has been looked after by Wendy and her colleague Bonnie Littlewood.

“When he first came out of the mine, he had to blink his way into the light,” says Wendy. “He hadn’t seen much sun and wasn’t used to it. The change in pace also took some adjustment.”

Now, Sparky’s life consists of staying out in a field overnight and spending his morning in the stable eating oats and barley, and meeting visitors.

The oldest pony in the museum, he is something of a living legend. “He’s a real charmer,” says Wendy. “It takes a while for him to warm to someone but once he does, he’s your friend for life. He’s stubborn and knows his own mind. He’s a real Victor Meldrew. But eventually, if you’re patient, he comes round.

“And he likes women. The gentle touch is what works with him. If you shout at him you have no chance.”

 

Horses in the Wings

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The theatrical and circus historian A H Saxon is the don of hippodrama history. I bought an old library copy of his Enter Foot and Horse when I was working on The Age of the Horse because I knew it would be the key to nineteenth-century equestrian theatre. I wasn’t disappointed.

Hippodramas were, to quote Saxon himself, plays “in which trained horses were considered actors, with business, often leading actions of their own, to perform.” They grew out of the very early equestrian circuses and were generally light on serious content, heavy on melodrama and chock full of sensational sets, scenes and galloping horses.

Saxon’s work is invaluable because the hippodrama is not exactly popular with theatrical historians and it also fell from fashion fairly rapidly, thus ensuring that few traces of it lingered in popular consciousness. I was delighted to find the facsimile of a script for one on Archive.org. It’s called

The Blood-Red Knight

or

The Fatal Bridge

A Grand Melo Dramatic Romance

In Two Acts

 

It was created by George Male for John Astley in 1810, just as the genre was taking off and getting steadily more spectacular. The plot is a classic piece of melodrama. The Blood-Red Knight, Sir Rowland, is hellbent on challenging the chastity of his brother Alphonso’s wife, Isabella, and begins the first act by chasing her and her son Henry through a sinister wood and up and down mountains.

When he finally gets his mitts on Isabella, he gives her a choice – give in to him or her son will be killed. Alphonso (earlier reported to have died in “the Holy Wars”) interrupts at the crucial moment but is bundled away to his death, forcing Isabella to agree to marry Sir Rowland. Luckily Alphonso wasn’t dead at all, and he and some friends storm the castle and launch into a stirring sword fight followed by a cavalry assault across a falling bridge.

At its climax, Isabella shoots Sir Rowland just before he can chop Alphonso in two, and it all ends happily ever after.

The full script at Archive.org is later, US edition, which you can browse here. It’s just 24 pages long. As A H Saxon points out in Enter Foot and Horse, this is not much of a script for a performance that lasted an hour and forty minutes. Not for nothing are the directions so long, although sadly they contain none of the minute moves that must go into coordinating a stage fight. Just how possible was that level of planning if horses were involved in a mêlée? Or did everyone just muck in and aim to get to the right spot at the right moment?

I have found, thanks to Caroline Hodak’s paper on hippodrama, information from the playbill about the special effects. I don’t have the original, so please forgive this re-translation of Hodak’s French translation:

The castle is attacked, the surrounding river is covered with boats filled with warriors while the walls are violently attacked […] Men and horses are represented injured and dying, in all positions, while other soldiers and their horses emerge from the river, forming an effect [sic] completely new and unprecedented in this country – and elsewhere – all ending with the complete defeat of the Blood Red Knight and the reunion of Alphonse and Isabelle.

Hodak quotes one report from the French writer Louis Simond, who saw the play and compared it unfavourably to performances in France:

Astley is a show of equitation and one naturally forms an advantageous notion of this type of spectacle as performed in England, which is something of an island of Houyhnhms . I expected something far superior to what I had seen in other countries, but I found the horses moderately well-trained: the men did no tricks that were out of the ordinary. Instead of equitation, we had drama and harlequinades, battle and fights. The characters were Moors and Saracens, and the horses were there like actors, as at Covent Garden; they ran in to the pit, and climbed onto the boards of the stage – all was covered in earth.

He goes on to say that between each act acrobats performed in the pit (at a guess this is the ring in front of the stage), sending up clouds of dust and tearing their trousers. Those is the cheap seats roared while respectable looking middle-class Londoners sat in the boxes. There was, Simond concluded, “a little corner of barbarity in most English popular amusements.” He moves on swiftly to Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a contemporary image of The Blood-Red Knight from the British Library’s archives. It had a first run at Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London of 175 performances, making an eye-watering £18,000 for Astley and company, and was introduced to New York in 1823.