A gamekeeping family in the Great War
David S. D. Jones looks back at the role that the celebrated Grass family of gamekeepers played during the First World War.
Just over a century ago, Great Britain declared war against Germany, entering into an armed conflict that was to last for four bloody years from 1914 until 1918. Commonly referred to either as the Great War or the First World War, the conflict was to have a catastrophic effect on the countryside, affecting shooting, farming, forestry and all other rural activities. Hordes of gamekeepers from all parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland enlisted in the armed forces in order to fight for King and country. Some became snipers in rifle regiments or served as ship's gunners in the Royal Navy while others joined specialist units such as the Lovat Scouts or the 1st Sportsmans' Battalion of the 23rd Royal Fusiliers.
Some 35 members of the Grass family, the well known English gamekeeping dynasty, joined the armed services following the outbreak of the war. Ernest Grass, a Hertfordshire gamekeeper, even falsified his age from 16 to 19 years in order to enter the Middlesex Regiment but was discharged after three weeks for “Having made a mis-statement as to age on enlistment.” Undeterred, he later enlisted in another regiment, eventually rising to the rank of Lance-Corporal.
In 1914, Grass gamekeepers could be found on estates throughout the country, both large and small, with as many as four or five members of the family being employed on properties such as Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, the seat of the Duke of Rutland, Eaton Hall in Cheshire, home of the Duke of Westminster, and Thoresby Park in Nottinghamshire, owned by Earl Manvers. In the Belvoir game department, alone, five of the keepering staff were Grasses, three of whom volunteered for the army after war was declared. Fred Grass, later headkeeper at Belvoir, served with the Royal Garrison Artillery, but was eventually discharged as an invalid having been badly affected by mustard gas released over a battlefield by German soldiers. Charles William Grass, underkeeper on the Knipton beat, joined the East Yorkshire Regiment while Charles Grass from Barkestone, who served with distinction in France with the Machine Gun Corps, was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery and rose to the rank of Sergeant.
It goes without saying that Grass gamekeepers from other major estates enlisted in the army, too, usually encouraged by their employer. Walter Grass from the Eaton estate joined the Liverpool Regiment. Robert Grass from Hooton Pagnell Hall entered the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Matthew Grass from Thoresby Park served in the Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment. Jim Grass from Wentworth Woodhouse not only enlisted in the West Yorkshire Regiment and served in France, but was the sole survivor of the four gamekeepers employed by Earl Fitzwilliam who went to war!
Private Robert Grass (left), a Cambridgeshire keeper who was one of a number of Grass keepers to be injured in the Great War. Seen here wearing an invalid soldiers' uniform
Perhaps not surprisingly, just two Grass gamekeepers served in the Royal Navy, James Grass as a Lieutenant in the R.N.R. and William Grass as an Able Seaman. Both of these men, from the coastal Lochnaw estate in Wigtownshire, were apparently members of the naval reserve and were mobilised when war was declared.
Moorland keeper, William Grass from Ramsgill in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire, even broke new ground for a member of the gamekeeping profession, joining the newly formed Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and serving with the ground staff.
Remarkably, only one Grass gamekeeper, Private Bert Grass of the Lancashire Fusiliers, appears to have been taken prisoner by the German Army during the course of the war. An underkeeper on an estate near Brandon in Suffolk, he was directed to work on a farm and, according to family tradition, was well looked after by his captors.
Cameron Grass, another member of the family, who happened to be working in Germany as a stalker-keeper at the outbreak of the war in 1914, was interned by the German authorities as an enemy alien. However, having been employed by the German Emperor, H.I.M. Kaiser Wilhelm II, at Rominten in East Prussia since the late 1890s, he was considered reliable enough to be sent to a large farm in North Germany and to act as an interpreter for British Prisoners of War with a farming background, who had been posted there to work in the fields under the supervision of armed guards. Cameron apparently put his trapping skills to good use at this time, ensuring that he and his fellow countrymen regularly had poached game with their meals!
Grass gamekeepers were active on the home front, too. George Grass, headkeeper to Lord Knaresborough at Marton-cum-Grafton in Yorkshire, was instrumental in establishing a branch of the Local Defence Volunteers, a ‘Home Guard type organisation formed to protect the country in the event of an enemy invasion. Grass, then in his early 50s, nevertheless had a white feather waved at him by the parish vicar, who thought that he should be using his gunnery skills in the army in France rather than to train elderly farm workers and other countrymen in the use of firearms!
George Grass, head gamekeeper to Lord Knaresborough at Marton-cum-Grafton in Yorkshire, who was instrumental in establishing a branch of the Local Defence Volunteers at Marton-cum-Grafton in the Great War
In many instances, Grass gamekeepers managed to keep shoots running, albeit usually on a scaled down basis. Charles Grass, headkeeper to Sir Ernest Cassell on the celebrated Six Mile Bottom Shoot in Cambridgeshire, for example, managed to put on a few good driven shoot days every season, using German prisoners of war as beaters, a practice forbidden by law but apparently commonplace on many estates.
Charles Grass, headkeeper at Six Mile Bottom in Cambridgeshire, one of a number of keepers to use German Prisoners of War as beaters on shoots
Some Grass gamekeepers were deliberately kept out of the armed services by keen shooting men. Sir Harry Upcher, owner of the East Hall estate at Feltwell in Norfolk managed to get Peter Grass, his headkeeper, exempted from military service by having him classed as an ‘agricultural labourer.' In order to satisfy the authorities, Peter was obliged to spend two days a week working on the home farm in addition to carrying out his gamekeeping duties.
Life as a Grass gamekeeper on the home front, however, was more comfortable than that enjoyed by folk in the towns and cities who had to endure food shortages and other deprivations. Many members of the family kept pigs and poultry to supply meat and eggs for the household and, of course, were allowed an unlimited supply of rabbits as a ‘perk' of the job. The only Grass to suffer from the effects of the war at home, Walter Grass, headkeeper for Captain Gerard Leigh on the Lees Court estate in Kent, had his house badly bombed by a German Zeppelin, forcing him to move out for three months while it was repaired. The bomb also destroyed his poultry house, killing his entire flock of hens.
Sadly, five Grass gamekeepers were to make the supreme sacrifice for their country during the course of the war, being killed in action on the battlefields of France. Lance-Corporal Walter Grass, a Buckinghamshire keeper and a sniper in the Rifle Brigade, lost his life in France in July, 1914. Rifleman James Grass of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, an underkeeper at Weeting Hall in Norfolk, was killed in France in October, 1915. Percy Grass, an underkeeper on the Six Mile Bottom estate in Cambridgeshire, who served as a private soldier with the Suffolk Regiment, died of wounds at Faveral in France in November,1917. Private Matthew Grass of the Kings Yorkshire Light Infantry, a beat keeper on the Lambton Castle estate in Co. Durham, was killed as a result of an explosion in October, 1918, and is commemorated on the Vis-En-Artois Memorial at Pas de Calais in France, having no known grave. Private Henry Clayton Grass of the Durham Light Infantry, brother of Matthew and also a beatkeeper at Lambton Castle, also lost his life in France in May, 1918. It is on record that the Earl of Durham, employer of both Matthew and Henry, provided their widows with a pension for life and a free house, and found employment for their children upon leaving school.
Most of the Grass gamekeepers who fought in the Great War returned to their former jobs following the cessation of hostilities in 1918. Gamekeeping and shooting, however, would never be quite the same again, due to the punitive taxation and death duties imposed upon landowners by the Lloyd George Liberal Government in the aftermath of the war, which resulted in drastic economies being made in shoot operations on virtually every estate in the land.