This year marks the centenary of the Great War. The transformation inflicted upon this country as a consequence of that campaign was immense. As the lamps went out all over Europe, little did people realise the huge changes that were to come. No echelon of society would be spared.

The impact on hunting was also extensive. In the context of war it may appear trivial, but it was nevertheless a fact. The curtain was about to come down on a way of life and nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Lord Robert Manners and Tommy Bouch were masters of the Belvoir Hunt when the declaration of war was announced on the 4 August. They were, to their credit, amongst the first to answer their country’s call, landing in France to rejoin their regiments a week after war was declared.

Tommy Bouch continued to fund the hunt in absentia and the 1914-15 season must at first have seemed pretty normal. After all, the consensus was: “It will all be over by Christmas.”

The reality of war, however, was soon brought home to the members of the Belvoir Hunt, when Robin Welby — only 19 and the son of hunt Chairman Sir Charles Welby — was killed in late August during the retreat from Mons.

In October came the demise of “first flight” Major R A Markham from Sysonby, serving with the Coldstream Guards; and on Christmas Eve 1914, Sir Montague Cholmeley, of the Easton Estate. These were all early casualties destined to be top of the list on the memorials erected after the war.

In the absence of the masters, Cyril Greenall of Carlton Hall (Sir Gilbert’s cousin), CJ Philips of Old Daly Hall and Sir Geo Whichcote of Aswarby Park took the helm, as all were past military age. At the outset, hunting days were reduced from six to four, necessitating the dispersal of Bouch’s private pack.

The local press reported that 35 horses from the Woolsthorpe stable were commandeered by the army within the first month.

It was not until 1915, when trench warfare set in and the casualty list rapidly grew, that the catastrophic reality began to emerge. On the Western Front, Jack Cox, son of Bicester huntsman Charley, who had served at Belvoir with credit, was killed on his first night in the trenches, as was newly appointed second whipper-in, Arthur Laytham.

To the great sorrow of the community, the popular Lord Robert Manners MFH, the Duke’s brother, joined the list of the fallen while commanding a battalion of Northumberland Fusiliers at Villoret.

Hunt servant heroes

Many hunt servants across the country exchanged scarlet for khaki, and were to perform gallant deeds for which they were deservedly rewarded.  George Castle from Badminton, Tom Singleton, Dumfriesshire and Fred Kinch, who was to give the Percy long and faithful service, were all awarded the Military Medal. Our own future Belvoir huntsman George Tongue received a well-deserved DCM during the closing weeks of hostilities.

Harry Maiden, a member of that famous line of hunt servants and former star pupil of Frank Gillard, was not so fortunate. In 1908 he accepted a lucrative position as huntsman to Prince Kamel Pasha, when Turkey decided to side with Germany, he found himself with a pack of hounds, no master nor money to maintain them and interned for the duration.

Following the armistice, a number of established hunts went to the wall, while others considered possible amalgamations. Tommy Bouch resumed his position, finding on his return a shortage of horses and men. 

The hound list had been reduced from a pre-war 100 couple to a mere 40, many of which were not up to much work. In his own words: “The sick, the lame and the halt.” 

As we all know, the casualty figures were unimaginable. Those who returned sound of body and mind could scarcely believe their fortune. They were determined to enjoy themselves and hunting field enjoyed a final encore, but the lavish Downton Abbey era was well and truly over.