Chapter III. Sport.
Woodcock Shooting in Albania
Someone said only yesterday, talking of shooting, "woodcock shooting is the most dangerous sport in the world."
Well it is fairly risky when you are covert shooting in England and the beggar flies low, dodging hither and thither, and every single gun within sight of him risks a shot.
But in its own country, say Albania, where it is not a rarity, you shoot more calmly, more carefully, and with better effect.
That was a ripping country to shoot in. It’s getting too civilised now, but a few years ago, when I went there in a yacht (the only way of getting there), we anchored in a perfect land-locked little bay and went ashore every day for shooting.
The law there was that you had to take a soldier with you as escort. His payment was sixpence a day, and unlimited cigarettes. Then you got a few villagers and their dogs to come with you as beaters. They were a picturesque-looking lot of ruffians and naturally so because their other role was that of brigands, by whom you would be trapped and hauled off to be ransomed, unless you were under Government protection, as evidenced by your soldier escort.
But in their capacity as beaters they were excellent fellows, hard and cheesy blackguards and good sportsmen.
The dogs of that country were a special feature in the picture. They were trained to attack strangers, the idea being to prevent the: stealing of sheep. If one saw a flock of sheep grazing on the hill-side one kept very wide of it, -because each flock was guarded by three or four dogs.
These beggars would lie around while the sheep grazed, but if a strange man appeared on the scene the nearest dog would go for him, calling up the others to the attack, and they would not be happy until they pulled him down.
There was a strict law against shooting a dog even in self-defence, and it imposed very heavy penalties for doing so, but you were allowed to stab him if he got so near as to be within your reach.
When we landed we took some of our crew with us to act as beaters, and these we armed with boarding pikes, which served both as beating sticks and as spears for defence against dogs.
A very well-known sportsman, hailing from Essex, who had been shooting in Albania, told me that he had suffered an attack from one of these dogs, and in self-defence he shot him.
Then remembering the law he promptly set to work to bury the dog before anyone should see him.
Just as he was in the middle of this operation the owner of the dog came upon him!
"My goodness!" I said: "What did you do then?"
"Oh, there was nothing else for it. I buried him too."
It has been stated in a book on shooting in the Mediterranean that 1 had made a record bag of woodcock in Malta. I have forgotten what was stated as this record, but it could not have been a very big one for I don’t suppose I got more than half a dozen in a season.
When the woodcock came in their annual migration, they favoured the orange groves belonging to the Governor’s country palace at Verdala. This came under my charge and I arranged with the head-gardener that when any woodcock were seen there he was to hoist a yellow flag on the tower. This was visible to me from my office eight miles away in Valetta. When I saw the flag flying I would jump into my cart and drive out to Verdala, and the gardener in the meantime would have called together a few beaters, and we proceeded to get the cock.
Shooting in Malta was a dangerous sport though, since the fields there are tiny enclosures between five-foot stone walls, and when birds were about there was a sportsman with a gun in almost every other field.
They fired in any direction and their shot striking the walls glanced off at all angles. I was a careful man and, seeing the danger, I took the precaution of insuring myself, especially my eyes, against accidents. I found, however, that my insurance paid itself over and over again for the many minor damages I sustained at polo.
The polo ground on the Marsa was solid rock in most places, which made the ball fly up with terrific force to catch you in the face, and if you had a fall, as occasionally happened, it gave you disastrous cuts and contusions when it did not happen to break your bones.
In South Africa
I had a dear old Boer friend in South Africa who, when he was harvesting his corn, left narrow strips of it standing which the quail came to use as cover.
They were thus easily walked up. On the first day that I shot over his ground he accompanied me in his Cape cart, with refreshments.
When I shot my first quail he shouted out his admiration, but when shortly afterwards I got a right and left and bagged them both his enthusiasm was unbounded. He said he had never seen anything like this before and it was a matter for celebration; so accordingly the stone bottle of dop brandy was uncorked and libation offered.
He then examined my gun with great curiosity and wonder. It turned out that he had never seen a shot-gun and had supposed all the time that I was shooting those tiny birds with a rifle!
Further quail shooting fell to my lot in Egypt and the Sudan and in India, as also of that splendid bird the sandgrouse, not to mention snipe and duck galore.
These also I shot in Tunisia under somewhat romantic conditions. I had a friend there in an English farmer who had been settled there for many years in a charming district for sport. He introduced me to an educated Arab who became my constant companion and host on the several occasions that I came to stay in that country.
I had a delightful night at his ramp at Sidi Salem El Owain, "the tomb of the little lame man." He had prepared a khuskhus supper for me in the shape of a bowl of rice and chicken and kid stewed together with other condiments into a very savoury dish, to which we helped ourselves with our fingers; and also some murga, eaten with milowee, thin lace-like chupatties.
Then we sat round a blazing log fire, for the nights were cold, in the brilliant starlight, talking and listening to his men singing their weird songs, far into the night. And when we coiled down to sleep we did so together, under his one blanket.
He was altogether a charming host and a perfect Arab gentleman. Later on I discovered that he was an Algerian Arab, Chief of a tribe, his real name being Sherif Ben Ali Sed Kaoui. He had, under the traditional custom of his kind, killed an adversary in a blood feud. For this he was tried by the French authorities, condemned and transported; to Cayenne, a penal settlement across the sea. When he had been there a year or two he managed to effect his escape and got back to Tunisia, where he was now living guarded by the men of his tribe against rearrest.
Hence his shyness of meeting French officers.
Not many months later I saw in a French newspaper that his hiding-place had been discovered, surrounded by the police, and he himself captured and shot.
From his introduction I had many friends among the Bedouins, whose hospitality and sportsmanship I fully enjoyed. They have very many nice attributes, these sons of the desert.
One pretty custom of theirs is that so
soon as you come within the circle of their tent-pegs you are their guest and no harm can
befall you. In proof of their hospitable intentions they plant their tent-pegs far out
from their tents, in order, as it were, to trap a guest.
He told me that many people had shot it but they looked upon it as a haunted bog because they never shot more nor less than eighteen birds. When I shot it I thought I had beaten the record when my nineteenth fell, but though he fell in a perfectly open spot we were never able to find him, so my bag totalled the usual score of eighteen!
One interesting first-aid hint that I gained from them was that horse-flies, when caught, will hang on to anything that they can bite with the tenacity of a bulldog, and the Arabs use them as we would use tweezers for pulling prickly pear spines out of themselves.
They also showed me a grave in which an Arab youth had just been buried; he had been caught by a jealous husband hovering round his tent. The J.H. caught him and, having tied his hands behind his back, shot him dead.
As this was considered a bit beyond the limit in Arab law the husband was arrested and was now in custody under sentence of execution. This was to be carried out by strangulation, for which process a man puts a slip-noose over his head and pulls it tight while a second man puts a second noose over and pulls in the opposite direction until the unfortunate victim is dead.
A cheery way of doing things.
I never went in for making big bags of game. As a rule I only shot for the pot excepting, of course, when out covert shooting in England.
Here on one occasion I beat all records.
My pick up at one stand alone was something like fifty birds when I had only fired twenty cartridges.
My host had engaged the services of the local Boy Scouts to act as beaters and he stationed one Scout behind each gun to mark down and collect the birds he shot.
At the end of the beat, when I turned to leave my stand, I found this pile of birds to my credit. I then realised that behind the line of guns the boys had surreptitiously passed along some of the birds shot by the other men as contributions to my heap!
Such is esprit de corps among the Boy Scouts.
Somehow covert shooting has not thc same appeal for me that shooting has out in the wild. A possible reason is that which Major Powell Cotton, the noted Big Game hunter, gave me for his abstention from covert shooting: "I am such a d—d bad shot."
AFRICAN BUCK SHOOTING
Talking of shooting I have a very happy memory of staying with a Boer, Bertie Van der Byl, at Bredasdorp down near Cape Agulhas. He had a large ostrich farm there where there was mixed shooting and we even attempted pig-sticking on the descendants of domestic pig which had gone wild.
On this farm there was preserved a herd of Bontebok. These were a variety of Blesbok, which had practically become extinct in Cape Colony. My host allowed me to shoot one as a specimen. This was an unique occasion, not only on account of the rarity of the species but also for the manner in which we hunted them.
Van der Byl drove me in a two-wheeled Cape cart with four mules, straight away over the veldt till we sighted the herd. When they saw us the deer started to gallop away at full speed. Crack, crack, went the whip, and away we went at a stretching gallop after them. It was an exhilarating chase, as we bumped over the rough ground sometimes on one wheel, sometimes on none, I hanging on for dear life and my driver, as keen and excited as a boy, urging his mules to do their very best.
For a time it looked a hopeless chase, but as the herd changed their direction and circled round, we were able to cut corners and gradually to come nearer to them.
Two fair-sized hills loomed up in front of us side by side, and as the herd went to the right of them Van der Byl drove to the left, and when we neared the gap between them he shouted to me: " Now "—pulled in his team, and I sprang out just in time to get a running shot as the buck passed the opening between the two hillocks.
By great luck my shot hit a good buck through the neck and he fell head over heels dead. Fortunately he was quite a fine specimen.
Some years later Van der Byl moved to another farm, up in the Transvaal, taking the herd with him, and here it lived in a large paddock.
When the Boer War came on the British stoops invaded the country and, on arrival at this farm, they shot the whole herd, seeing the chance of some good meat.
I fear now that the Bontebok must be practically extinct,
I had many other good sportsmen among my Dutch friends at the Cape. For a time I was Master of the Cape Fox Hounds, and we had some very keen, if weird-looking followers of the Hunt.
Their doings I have recorded in Sport in War. This was long ago, before the wretched Boer War. I am certain that, had the bond of sportsmanship been allowed to continue which brought Boer and Briton together in the hunting field in the way it did, there would to-day have been a close feeling of friendship, if not a fusion of the two races in those parts.
FOX-HUNTING AS A SCHOOL
Fox-hunting, when you come to think of it, is really a very wonderful institution. Although it has come to be quite an artificial sport in a wholly civilised country it still keeps going in every part of England in spite of the War, in spite of the decline in horse-breeding, and in spite of heavy taxes and heavier costs. It is one of the few old institutions left which still keeps us in touch to-day with the traditions and spirit of the former Old England.
There is another point about it too. Having seen most of the cavalries of the world I have no doubt in my mind as to which is the most efficient for its work in war, and equally I have no doubt that fox-hunting is to a large extent responsible for that efficiency.
The nation really owes much to fox-hunting for what it has done to help our cavalry to compensate for its small quantity by its excellence in quality, and this without any extra call upon the taxpayer—for once!
The ex-Kaiser fully recognised this even before he had tasted its quality in the Great War, and he had established at Hanover a pack of hounds as part of the establishment of the Cavalry School there.
Of course, it was militarised, having a Captain as Master, a Sergeant-Major as huntsman, a Sergeant as first whip, and so on downwards.
Undoubtedly fox-hunting has proved a school for training men in riding fearlessly across country of all descriptions; it has taught them practical horsemastership, in economising the powers of the horse, and judging when to nurse him and when to let him go.
It has also trained in them that invaluable attribute, "an eye for country," and not through dry lectures or boring field-days, but through a sport which appeals to their enthusiasm and gives them at once health and enjoyment.
Equally with fox-hunting comes polo as a school, at any rate for cavalry officers, and again at no expense to the taxpayer, though at a pretty big one for the player.
WINSTON CHURCHILL ON POLO
Winston Churchill, in his recent autobiography, omits the fact of his having delivered at a polo banquet one of the finest orations ever pronounced on the subject.
He eloquently put the subject before us, and gradually exposed the fact that not only was polo the finest and greatest game in the world but the most heroic and sporting adventure in the universe. At his peroration we could restrain our enthusiasm no longer and greeted the statement with a round of cheering.
After this, someone moved that "this be enough of Winston," which was carried with only one dissentient, and Winston was put under an inverted sofa, to be retained there for the rest of the evening with a hefty subaltern
But shortly he emerged from under one of the arms, with what might be taken as an historic phrase:
"It’s no use sitting on me—I am India-rubber."