On the battlefield, quick thinking and nerves of steel are vital, and the sport of polo has helped servicemen hone these traits for more than 150 years, says Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Foulerton
Army polo flourished in the early 20th century and was exported across the Empire, including Egypt, where large numbers of troops were needed to protect our imperial artery – the Suez Canal. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Foulerton charts its history.
Polo player Tamara Fox remembers how she started out in the sport, how she juggled a business and playing at the top level and the attention to detail of the high-goal game.
The pursuit of perfection is ingrained in the gifted craftsmen who make the military uniform, metalwork, swords and accoutrements for the Armed Forces, says Eleanor Doughty.
THE ORIGINS OF ARMY POLO
Until the mid-20th century, the vista from my office window at the British Embassy in Cairo extended uninterrupted to the pyramids of Giza. These wonders of antiquity are no longer visible, but my view across the Nile survives, looking across to the Gezira Sporting Club on the island of Zamalek, founded in 1882 as the Khedivial Sporting Club for British cavalry officers in need of a place to play polo. This reminder, and a love of the game that I developed early in my regimental life, gave me the impetus to invite a British Army polo team to Egypt last November, after an almost unbroken 70-year hiatus. At stake for the five-goal Army team as they took on our generous Cairene hosts, the Kings Club, was the newly created Brigadier ‘Roscoe’ Harvey trophy, named in honour of one of the most accomplished cavalrymen and polo players to have been stationed in Egypt. Charles Barnet ‘Roscoe’ Harvey was born in Sarawak on 19 July 1900 and commissioned into the 10th Hussars in 1920. In India and subsequently in Egypt, he excelled in racing, hunting, pig-sticking and polo. When the cavalry was mechanised, he overcame his dislike of the internal combustion engine and proved to be a great tank commander, leading the 10th Hussars from 1941 to 1942, later promoted to Brigadier in the 11th Armoured Division and winning the Distinguished Service Order three times during the war.
The first recorded game that preceded ‘polo’ took place in 600BC between the Turkomans and Persians (the Turkomans won). However, British involvement did not occur until the mid-19th century, when tea planters in Manipur, East India, adopted the game of pulu, brought there by the invading Moghuls and named after the Hindi word for ‘willow root’, from which the ball was made, and subsequently anglicised to ‘polo’. The first polo club in the world was formed in Silchar, India, in 1859. That same year, Lieutenant Joe Sherer (later Major General), adjutant of the 44th (Sylhet) Regiment of (Bengal) Native (Light) Infantry, and Captain Robert Stewart, superintendent of Cachar, founded a European polo club. In 1862, Sherer and his team of seven Manipur men, nicknamed ‘The Brothers’, took the game to Calcutta and formed the Calcutta Polo Club, the oldest polo club in existence today. Naval officers on their way home from India brought the game to Malta in 1868. In 1929, the Open Challenge Cup, originally played for in Malta and now belonging to the Army Polo Association (APOLOA), was won by a team called the Shrimps, led by Lord Louis Mountbatten.
It was Captain John Watson, of the 13th Hussars, who laid the foundations of the game as we know it today while posted to India in the 1870s. Watson’s orders to develop the sport came from General Frederick Roberts VC, later Field-Marshal Earl Roberts of Kandahar, immortalised by the British public as the hero ‘Bobs’. History has immortalised Watson as the ‘father’ of English polo, but it was Edward ‘Chicken’ Hartopp of the 10th Hussars who, in 1869, reading an account of the game in The Field, first introduced the sport to England. He was hooked immediately and on a hastily rolled Hounslow Heath, now runway one of London Heathrow, he and officers of the 10th Hussars, stationed in Aldershot, played the first game of polo in Britain versus the 9th Lancers. The 10th Hussars won. The game was then referred to as ‘hockey on horseback’ and consisted of two teams of eight players. Establishing a few elementary rules, these trailblazers rode cavalry chargers and used heavy walking sticks held upside down. The chargers proved impractical, so 17 ponies of about 12.2 hands were imported from Ireland on the understanding that they were “quiet and handy”. Other changes involved holding the stick in the right hand only and no riding across another player.
The first polo club in England was founded in Monmouthshire in 1872 by Captain Francis ‘Tip’ Herbert of the 7th Lancers, at his brother’s estate at Clytha Park, near Abergavenny. In 1876, the 10th Hussars continued to introduce polo to the world when Lieutenant Colonel Thomas St Quintin introduced the game to Australia, where two of his brothers stayed on as ranchers and helped the game to develop. From this period, polo was encouraged across the Army, especially in the cavalry regiments, where it was considered excellent training; improving horsemanship, confidence in controlling a horse with one hand and developing fitness, courage, skill and teamwork. While on manoeuvres with my regiment at Sennelager in 2001, I was invited to a dinner with the descendants of the 8th (1st Westphalian)
Emperor Nicholas II of Russia’ Hussars at Schloss Neuhaus in Paderborn. In my Blues and full of Schnapps courage, I was sent at great speed down the dining hall on a wooden horse whose wheels were mounted on a camshaft, causing the charger to canter violently. Simultaneously, I was expected to impale hanging wooden hoops with a sabre. I terminated in the fireplace minus hoops and dignity but respectful of Imperial German cavalry training.
Polo in the Army flourished in the early 20th century and was exported across the Empire, including Egypt, where large numbers of troops were needed to protect our imperial artery – the Suez Canal. Examples of 13th-century Mamluk glasswork remind us that polo was being played in Egypt during the time of this warrior dynasty, who adopted the game while fighting the Mongols. Some 700 years later, the Cavalry Journal of 1913 records a clean sweep in Cairo for the 3rd Dragoon Guards, who beat the Scots Guards five goals to three in the Cairo Inter-Regimental Tournament and later the Khedivial Sporting Club six goals to three in the Cairo Champion Cup Tournament. It was not until the 1920s that cavalry regiments were stationed in Egypt and in 1919, the 20th Hussars arrived in the town of Abbasia. Captain Colin Davy, formerly of the 20th Hussars, lamented to his close friend Roscoe about the state of their accommodation. The regiment overcame its messing issues and during the subsequent decade, polo in Egypt prospered before the 20th handed over to the 10th Hussars in 1929. In the 1930s, the polo fields of Cairo and Alexandria paid host to an exceptional cadre of 10th Hussar players, including Roscoe (+6); Charles Gairdner (+8), commanding officer of the regiment from 1937 to 1940; Mike McMullen (+5), subsequently killed in action in the Western Desert; and David Dawnay (+8), commanding officer of the North Irish Horse in 1941. Dawney and William Robert Norris ‘Looney’ Hinde of the 15th Hussars played for the British polo team at the 1936 Olympics, during which the British achieved a silver medal in the final against Argentina. This game arguably marked the zenith for Army polo and the final stage in the transfer of high-goal dominance from Europe to the Americas. Although Army polo did continue during the war, it never returned to the golden era of the 1930s.
The establishment of the second British Army of the Rhine and Britain’s military withdrawal from East of Suez led to the expansion of Army polo in north-west Europe. In between manoeuvres across the German plains, regimental polo focused around inter-regimental matches and tournaments with the German teams, who had, like so many other countries where British troops were stationed, learnt and embraced the game. In the garrison towns of Düsseldorf and Hamburg, Major Hugh Dawnay, of the 10th Hussars and son of the Olympic player David Dawnay, discovered his flair for coaching polo. He insisted on having mixed teams of British and German players, which led to an exchange of hospitality and a great improvement in relations. Jilly Cooper acknowledged Dawnay’s help in the introduction of her novel Polo, in which she said that to start learning the game without being taught by Dawnay was like getting married without having had any romantic experience.
There continued to be a few clubs further afield in garrisons such as Cyprus and, seeking adventure, Army players often appeared on fields in exotic locations. As a teenager, I remember marvelling at the sight of British subalterns playing polo against a ragtag team of Changpa nomads in Ladakh at an elevation of 11,500ft and on a pitch that incorporated a number of small temples. While on loan service with the Jordanian Army, I was lucky enough to play with the Hashemite princes with whom I had shared my armoured training at Bovington. Their excellent polo ground is on the edge of the garrison town of Zarqa, north-west of the capital, Amman.
Here Lieutenant General Sir John Bagot Glubb, known affectionately as ‘Glubb Pasha’, stationed Transjordan’s Arab Legion from 1939 until 1956 and unsurprisingly the seconded British officers established a polo ground. Following the end of the Cold War, a reduction in the size of the Army and operational commitments led to a decline in Army polo during the 1990s. The APOLOA was founded in 1998 to coordinate and encourage Army polo, both at home and abroad. During the same period, Major General Arthur Denaro, late Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, re-established polo at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where the academy continues to introduce the game to young officer cadets. Over the past two decades, the APOLOA, centred at Tedworth Park Polo Club, has turned around Army polo under the leadership of its present manager, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Ledger, late Light Dragoons. Today, the APOLOA has 206 players of all ranks drawn from the Cavalry, Guards, Royal Artillery and those regiments previously without a strong polo heritage, including the Royal Army Medical Corps, Royal Logistics Corps, the Adjutant General’s Corps, the Royal Signals, the Defence Academy and veterans groups.
The APOLOA seeks to widen access to the sport and develop the next generation of Army players. During the past five years, teams have travelled extensively, playing in Morocco, Malaysia, Mongolia, Barbados, India and Egypt. Annually, there are three Army tournaments in addition to the Inter-Regimental, the oldest polo trophy in the world, dating back to 1871. In 2021, the Queen’s Royal Hussars overcame the King’s Royal Hussars by just half a goal in the Inter-Regimental at the Guards Polo Club. Quoting Roscoe’s biography, it was “the hunting, steeple-chasing, pig-sticking and polo, the nerves of steel, the quick, inspired decisions, the complete disregard of personal danger, the icy coolness at all times and the total intolerance of anything but the highest standards” that were the making of this legendary cavalryman and polo player. It is also for these reasons that polo continues to remain entwined in the ethos and spirit of the British Army today.