Do hunting metaphors, direct and indirect, make war more palatable, more enticing, more impersonal, or more fun? All of these ideas might be applied to terminology such as ‘bagging a brace of prisoners’, ‘taking a pot-shot’, ‘tracking down’, even ‘sniping’. Did the verbal culture of hunting affect all sides, growing from class-based activities – think of the Jaegerclass in Germany – or from the general rural activities of supplying the cooking pot? France initiated a regiment of chasseurs(hunters) in 1743, both infantry and light cavalry, and Belgium followed in 1832, and later the US and Argentinian armies.

Hunting phrases permeate war memoirs in English, and in some instances indicate class differentials; we can distinguish terms from the occupation of beating (several men employed to walk in a line to make birds fly up from ground cover) rather than from the so-called ‘guns’, though here there the term, attested from 1812 in the OED, meaning ‘person shooting for sport’, is parallel to the use of ‘bayonet’ for ‘men’. By the nineteenth century there was a clear distinction between the ‘sportsman’, shooting primarily as a pastime, and the ‘wildfowler’, shooting for the pot – hunting, both for the edible and the inedible, had become a leisure pastime, providing primarily trophies rather than meat.

The change of attitudes towards hunting – the reducing numbers taking part, the change in social acceptability, the disappearance from the rural economy – render quite startling appearances of hunting terms in wartime texts. At its most direct this is seen in the fairly frequent occurrence of phrases such as ‘boche-hunting’ or ‘potting the Hun’, or ‘Taube-shooting from French covers’, all of which appeared in the War Budgetbetween February and April 1916.  In Neil Tytler’s 1922 memoir With Lancashire Ladsthe simplicity and directness of the hunting analogy can still surprise: ‘Just after dawn and the hour after sunset are my happy hunting hours, which usually yield the best sport’ (especially as on the same page he describes shooting partridges, with a dog, in no man’s land). A day spent shelling ‘Hunland’ is described as ‘a tiresome and difficult shoot’.

At the other end of the social scale ‘killing Germans [might be reported] as a sport similar to ratting’ (Cpl H Diffey, quoted in Lynn MacDonald, Voices and Images of the Great War), though Diffey states that he and his comrades ‘could laugh aloud at these reports’.

The metaphor of the ‘bag’, allowed some distancing, and was often applied to taking prisoners rather than killing: Capt R. J. Trousdell described in his diary ‘the total bag for the Corps about 3,000’, while the Dublin Daily Expressin August 1916 used the headline ‘22 Germans bagged with an empty revolver’. But the term was also used of killing: Major Cowan of the Royal Engineers in 1917 described laying mines which would ‘make a decent bag’, and H. M. Stanford, a gun observer at the Somme, wrote ‘I believe I made a bag of about 20 Huns with one round’.

‘Up’ in the hunting sense of ‘disturbed’ was used too – John Masefield was describing a scene from hunting in ‘I put up a rabbit in our old lines, & any number of partridges’ (letter, 1917), but the beaters’ cry of ‘Up’ or ‘Bird up’ might be applied to the predator-cum-quarry of the aeroplane or the missile: ‘Minnie up!’ in Henry Williamson’s patriot’s Progress, and ‘Aeroplane up!’ (The Attack, sound dramatization on record) and the Canadian and American ‘Heinie up!’ (Brophy and Partridge, The Long Trail).

William Beach Thomas was a war reporter for the Daily Mail, and gained a reputation for enthusiastic, sometimes idealised, support for the British soldier. Repeatedly vilified in The Wipers Times as William Teach Bomas, this writer can still make the reader wince, though he clearly had an ear for soldiers’ speech – he notes that soldiers called Fricourt, behind the lines, a ‘health resort’, that the second wave in a French attack was called (in French) ‘the cleaners’, and describes soldiers as ‘jump[ing] the lid’, a term he uses twice but which has not been found elsewhere, even in Partridge. He was clearly not taken in by official press-release terminology: ‘our losses were slight – to use the statistical word’. The at times florid prose of ‘a field so foully featured and void’ compares poorly with ‘these English troops always “stick it”; such little phrases I heard day after day through the long warfare’; but such inconsistency is a feature of much English writing.

With the British on the Somme(1917) contains several examples of hunting metaphors, some more obvious than others. ‘A few minutes later several hundred more [Germans] broke into the open, like pheasants at the end of a drive’; ‘a pack of “heavies” duly gave tongue’ (‘giving tongue’ describes a pack of hounds barking together when the hunted animal is cornered’); ‘of a sudden the desperation of the struggle broke. “We flushed ’em and they rose like a covey of partridges”’. Beach Thomas may be fairly criticised for the range of his sources of metaphor – ‘men called out hilarious encouragement: “Go it, Lillywhites,” “Go it, Ribs,” using the vocatives of the playing field”; and on the next page ‘our artillery … sent a German battalion scattering till it vanished like steam from an engine’, and soon after ‘the Guards fought the gayest fight of which I ever heard news or any troubadour dreamed’. The hunting metaphors and anecdotes of the transference of hunting models, deeply rooted in the class experience of British society, both differential and deferential, that stand out as so distinct from the present, especially, as here, when they are mixed with literary myth and mysticism:

‘And here it was, out in the open, that Colonel Campbell blew a Roland and Oliver blast on his silver hunting-horn and rallied his Coldstreamers to the final triumphant charge, as he would call his harriers over Shropshire fields. The day after the fight I saw men stroke that horn and touch it as if there were health and honour in the mere contact. But all day and night it was bitter fighting, as every man and every officer knew.’


Some of the material presented here can be found, with page and date references, in Words and the First World War.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: