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The gamekeepers of WWI

On the Centenary Anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, David Jones remembers the gamekeepers who fought in the war

Gamekeepers of WWI

On 4 August, 1914, when Great Britain declared war on Germany and WWI broke out, around 23,000 gamekeepers were employed on estates throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Encouraged by landowners and the popular press, these keepers, both young and old, flocked to enlist to fight for their country.

Those already serving in local territorial units were sent to the front straightaway, often being transferred to rifle regiments as snipers, while men from coastal estates who were naval reservists were sent to sea as ships’ gunners. Inexperienced keepers were trained up as soldiers but were usually deployed on ordinary fighting duties by officers who did not appreciate their capabilities. In certain circumstances, a keeper-soldier might even be excused from general service and appointed as an officer’s batman or driver.

Some gamekeepers managed to transfer to specialist units such as the Lovat Scouts, the Scottish keepers and stalkers regiment, or the 1st sportsman’s Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, where their skills were put to good use. Later in the first world war, suitable openings were found for keepers in the Lovat Scouts’ sharpshooters unit, formed in 1916, and the Army Messenger Dog Service, established in 1917, which trained and worked dogs that were used to track and find wounded men on the battlefield or to carry despatches and small packages between the lines.

Sport on the battlefields

Some men even had the occasional opportunity to engage in sporting activities when officers’ went out in pursuit of game during quiet periods. Sergeant Harry White, headkeeper at Neasham Hall in Yorkshire, frequently acted as an officer’s loader and, if necessary, organised groups of soldiers into beating parties at impromptu shoots. Hampshire gamekeeper, Private Arthur Hipgrave of The Oxfordshire and Bucks Light Infantry, not only acted as a beater on officers’ battlefield gameshoots but also found time to write a classic book about partridge management during his off-duty hours in the trenches. Private Bill Brunt, an Oxfordshire gamekeeper, was even put in charge of his Commanding Officer’s 12-bore while soldiering in Salonika in 1916 and was regularly sent out to shoot partridges and woodcock for the Officers’ Mess table.

Wounds of World War One

Scores of gamekeepers were wounded in the the great war, with many suffering from the debilitating effects of gas exposure while in the trenches. The more serious casualties that could not be dealt with at field ambulance stations were sent back to England for treatment at military hospitals or country houses that had been converted into temporary convalescent homes.

wwi gamekeeper soldier private bert tiller

Underkeeper Private Bert Tiller had his right arm permanently damaged by shellfire

Many keepers were left physically or mentally scarred for life. Private Cyril Ford, a Dorset keeper, was temporarily blinded by mustard gas and was to suffer permanently from catarrh and a nervous twitch for the rest of his days. Private Peter Eggleton of the Middlesex Regiment, a beatkeeper at Six Mile Bottom in Cambridgeshire, who sustained severe head injuries at Ypres and was only recovered from the battlefield several days after the end of the battle, had a plate permanently fitted to his skull and suffered from severe headaches thereafter.

In addition to the gamekeepers who were wounded on theWWI  battlefield, a number of keepers were taken prisoner by the enemy and sent to prisoner of war camps in Germany and elsewhere. Some were lucky enough to be posted to farms, where they worked under the supervision of armed guards and were reasonably well fed; others were made to work in factories in appalling conditions. Private Frederick Bushell, for example, a Berkshire keeper who was captured at the start of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, spent three years at a camp in Westphalia where he experienced many hardships working in an iron foundry, often being forced to do 24-hour shifts.

Home front efforts

Gamekeepers helped on the home front, too, either combining their duties with farm and forestry work, becoming involved in training or home defence activities in their spare time, or taking on a completely different job for the duration of world war 1.

George Grass, headkeeper to Lord Knaresborough at Marton-cum-Grafton in Yorkshire, was instrumental in establishing a branch of the Local Defence Volunteers, an organisation formed to protect the country in the event of an enemy invasion. Roderick Mackenzie, stalker-keeper at Hamnavay on the remote west coast of the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, became a part-time Royal Navy watcher and patrolled the local coastline twice daily keeping a lookout for any enemy shipping movements in the area, making regular reports from his house to H.M.S. Iolaire in Stornoway via a specially installed telegraph line.

Shot game nourishing invalid soldiers and sailors

Throughout the duration of the first world war, gamekeepers regularly went out shooting game in order to supply nourishing food for invalid soldiers and sailors who were recuperating. In Scotland, landowners and their keepers sent donations of venison, grouse, salmon and vegetables during the shooting season to organisations such as the Inverness Citizens’ Committee, which supplied local Naval bases with fresh meat and produce as a treat for sailors on board visiting battleships. On some estates, keepers culled herds of deer for food purposes, while on others they decimated rabbit warrens or netted fish out of rivers and ornamental lakes.

Ladies assisted the gamekeepers in their work on a number of estates, preserving pheasants and partridges, trapping vermin and acting as beaters on shoot days. In several instances, where a single-handed keeper had gone to war, his wife kept things going with the help of her children. Full-time lady gamekeepers were employed by landowners, too, to make up for the shortfall in men. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu engaged Miss Hilary Dent as a keeper at Beaulieu in Hampshire, but stipulated that she “was not allowed to go out on night duty unaccompanied”. Indeed, the growing popularity of lady keepers prompted the Carreras Ltd., manufacturers of Black Cat cigarettes, to feature a lady gamekeeper on a cigarette card in its “Women on War Work” series.

wwi lady gamekeeper

In the absence of men, there was an increasing trend to employ lady gamekeepers







Gamekeepers decorated for bravery

Many gamekeepers were decorated for bravery on the battlefield during the Great War. Sergeant Adam Gordon of the Yorkshire Hussars, gamekeeper to Lord Helmsley, was awarded the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his work as a sniper. Private Denis O’Brien of the Irish Guards, a member of the gamekeeping staff at Cahir Park in Co. Tipperary, not only received the Military Medal but was also presented with the Croix de Guerre by the Belgian Government for his services at the Battle of Boesinghe. William Edward Holmes, an estate worker at Stanway House in Gloucestershire who achieved the ultimate military accolade, the Victoria Cross “for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” in 1918, was actually a gamekeeper-forester.

Gamekeepers of WWI

Sadly, quite a number of gamekeepers were to make the supreme sacrifice for their country during the course of world war one, being killed in action on the battlefields of Europe or on the high seas, or dying of wounds in a military hospital. The Sandringham estate lost nine keepers between 1914 and 1918. Three out of the four keepers from the Wentworth Woodhouse estate in Yorkshire that went to war were killed in action. The Buriton estate in Hampshire, the Scaliscro estate on the Isle of Lewis and the Six Mile Bottom estate in Cambridgeshire all lost a keeper apiece. And so the list goes on.

The Great War ended when armistice was declared on 11 November, 1918. Shortly afterwards, gamekeepers began to return home from the armed forces, having played a vital role in securing victory for their country. Many found themselves without a job as landowners had been forced to make economies due to punitive taxation and death duties imposed by the Lloyd George Liberal government in order to pay for the war. Some of these redundant keepers re-joined the army as career soldiers, while others chose to seek alternative employment in the countryside as woodmen or farm workers. But almost all of them continued to retain a keen interest in gamekeeping and shooting.