War horses earn right to be hailed as veterans

IT took Michael Morpurgo’s tear- jerker of a book, and the subsequent Steven Spielberg film and stunning stage version of War Horse, to convey the carnage suffered by horses drafted into service in World War One. Eight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died overall. Britain alone lost over 484,000, one for every two men.  One-quarter of all deaths were due to gunfire and gas. Exhaustion, disease, drowning, becoming stuck in the mud or falling into shell holes claimed the rest. This is hardly surprising.

Due to their vulnerability, many horses were used for pulling supply wagons.   (Courtesy : Brooke Action for Working Horses and Donkeys www.thebrooke.org/news/mules-are-underappreciated-war-heroes

Horses, seen by the military as a better bet than mechanised vehicles in the unforgiving terrain, were used for reconnaissance and carrying messengers as well as for pulling artillery, ambulances and supply wagons. Losses were particularly heavy among Clydesdale horses which were used to haul guns. Many of the 725,000 horses, successfully treated at the British Army Veterinary Corp hospitals in France, were sent back to the front. A typical horse hospital could treat 2,000 animals at any one time. Well-bred horses were apparently more likely to suffer from shell shock and be affected by the sights and sounds of battle than their less refined compatriots who could be taught to lie down and take cover at the sound of artillery fire. Fodder was the single largest commodity shipped to the front by some countries, including Britain.  The manufacturers of Quaker Oats even offered to supply cakes baked from compressed oats and molasses, but was dismissed as too extravagant.

Blue Cross vets did not have the luxury of modern, clean operating theatres during the First World War. They carried out surgery in field conditions (Courtesy of Blue Cross)

DUMMY HORSES FOOLED THE ENEMY : The use of horse carcasses as impromptu barriers were a common feature; the French even used hollowed-out dummy horses made out of papier-mâché and large enough for a man to crawl inside and poke a gun through. Even though the Germans caught on to this when a French sniper was spotted climbing out of a horse, the method became a regular feature for the duration of the war. A common belief, however, that in 1914 the British Army robbed farmers of their all their working horses leaving them unable to work the land, is debunked by Lucy Betteridge-Dyson a military historian and MA student, herself a horse rider . ‘ The myth persists I think in part due to depiction of the Army requisition scheme – otherwise known as “impressment” – in film and TV. In reality, the British Army impressment scheme had specific exceptions regarding horses working in agriculture and transport (which at the time was of course highly dependent on horse power). Writing on her website https: ohwhataladylikewar.com she points out that while ‘ the scheme saw 165,000 horses requisitioned by the military in just under two weeks, the British Army, favoured the light draught or clean legged Percheron for work on the front line. In the end of the 231,683 heavy breeds registered in the 1912-1913 horse census, only 16,670 were requisitioned.

Dummy horses helped fool the enemy. (Courtesy Brooke)

She added: ‘ While there were a few “over-enthusiastic”remount officers, generally the mobilisation of horses in Britain was completed with little disruption to commercial and agricultural life.’ In truth, the Army generally bought its horses of which some 450,000 came from Britain and Ireland, and over 700,000 more worldwide, mainly from North America.

Lucy also dismisses ‘ depictions of an anachronistic British cavalry, sent into battle by blundering generals only to be slaughtered by a more advanced, mechanised enemy.’  This, she says, flies in the face of military historian Stephen Badsey stressing that even at its strongest the British cavalry – as opposed to the soldiers and horses simply drafted in – numbered about 19,000 troopers and horses.

This was far too few to make any big difference in a campaign dominated by infantry and artillery. They did, however, make several successful charges with swords and lances with man and horse facing death and danger together. The Germans dropped similar charges soon after the war begun, with limited use only on the Eastern Front  and not throughout like the Russians. The US cavalry was only briefly used. David Kenyon himself a military advisor on the film  War Horse and respected for his work on Great War history likewise attacks the contention that the tank was the future and the cavalry only retained to the patronage of men such as Haig. In fact, he stresses, ‘ the tank was still very much in its infancy, and was in no way in a position to completely replace the horse on the battlefield.’

By 1917 the value of horses and the increasing difficulty of replacing them were such that some troops were told that the loss of a horse was of greater tactical concern than the loss of a human soldier. Ultimately, the blockade of Germany  prevented the  Central Powers from importing horses to replace those lost, which contributed to Germany’s defeat. By the end of the war, even the well-supplied US Army was short of horses. Among a string of equine heroes were The ‘Old Blacks’ the nickname given to a team of black Royal Horse Artillery gun horses who were posted to France for the duration of the war. At least two of their drivers looked after their designated pair of horses while serving in major battles right across the Western Front from Ypres to St Quentin a feat  related by Peter Shaw Baker in his 1933 book  Animal War Heroes.  

Without horses, the British Army could not have functioned.  They were vital for the cavalry, but also needed for moving supplies, equipment, guns and ammunition, and taking the wounded to hospital. Picture taken from 59 postcards possibly associated with 2/5th Bn The Buffs (East Kent Regiment) transport, 1914-1918. ( Courtesy of the National Army Museum, London )


Such was their resilience and impressive service that on their return home they made several public appearances, including the International Horse Show Olympia in 1920. Later that year, they were chosen to draw the carriage of the Unknown Warrior to Westminster Abbey on November 11, a symbolic decision that provided some recognition of not just their individual contribution but the collective role of horses in the Great War. This shared experience led to animal welfare groups, such as the RSPCA and Blue Cross, frequently referring to the animals as ‘comrades’ and ‘veterans’. Jane Flynn a teacher and historian likewise explores this bond between soldier and horse in her book: Sense, Sentimentality and the Soldier-Horse Relationship in The Great War. See also www.janeflynn-senseandsentimentality.com

The Blue Cross, named after the flags displaying the blue crosses that flew above animal hospitals and ambulances, was back in action after caring for animal casualties during the Balkan War. It was then called Our Dumb Friends League. (Courtesy: Blue Cross  see: www.bluecross.org.uk/blue-cross-world-war-one-collectionnamed)

When war was declared over in 1918, many millions of soldiers looked forward to finally returning home, often to an uncertain future. But their horses and mules fared worse. A BBC audio slide show narrated by TV presenter Matt Baker shows that only mounts that were owned by officers were guaranteed to return. The fate of the rest of the Army’s horses and mules, however, depended on their age and fitness with only the healthiest and youngest brought back to the UK; 25,000 remained in the British army while more than 60,000 were sold to farmers. Horses and mules in the next class down were auctioned off to farmers on the continent for an average of £37. The oldest and most worn out horses were sent to the knacker’s yard for meat and fetched £19 –a necessary move when severe food shortages hit Europe at the end of the war.

Also hailed were others such San Toy and Roger, who retired to stables owned by The Horse Trust. The former  had served throughout both the Boer and Great War, while Roger had been found wandering in No Man’s Land – just like in War Horse  which, if you have not read the book, traces the story of a horse named Joey from his time as a foal, living peacefully on a farm, through to the end of the war as a dazzling red bay stallion. Seen from a horse’s eyes, it provides a whole new perspective to the cruelty of war. FULL DETAILS: (https://bam.files.bbci.co.uk/bam/live/content/zqn9xnb/transcript)

Royal Scots Greys near Brimeux, France,1918.   (Brooke Action for Working Horses and Donkeys)

In 1932 the RSPCA, who, among others, helped the army care for horses, opened The Animals War Memorial Dispensary treating 6,000 animals. Others, also in the 1930s, ended up at the Ada Cole Stables. They still have the original ledger that documents those rescued from the Belgian horsemeat markets.

By February 1919 the Army Veterinary Corps had reduced the number of horses on the Western Front from 326,286 to just 20,004. Some officers and soldiers, having formed close bonds with their horses were deeply distressed at seeing them treated solely as a commodity. They were not alone. As debates continued, the status of the horses among the 95,000 animals repatriated, was elevated. No longer were they viewed as a mere tool of warfare. They were veterans.

Not all horses, however, enjoyed a peaceful retirement. A powerful You Tube shows how in 1930 Dorothy Brooke, shocked by the sight of emaciated and worn out ex-war horses, donkeys and mules in Egypt, raised the equivalent of £20,000. Within three years she had purchased 5,000 though sadly most had to be humanely put down. The work of Brook Action for Horses and Donkeys continues today. See: www.thebrooke.org/about-us/our-history

In London the Animal War Memorial Dispensary  at 10 Cambridge Avenue, just off Kilburn High Road, opened in March 1931 treated over 6,000 animals in its first year. A large bronze plaque depicts pairs of animals that saw action in war – not just horses and mules, but oxen, dogs, elephants, camels and pigeons (more of which in a future posting).

Artists, too, such as  Alfred Munnings  extensively documented the work of horses in war, as did wartime poetry though surprisingly little by major names. However part of A Soldier’s Kiss
by Henry Chappell is worth repeating:

Beside the stony highway where he fell.

Only a dying horse! He swiftly kneels,

Lifts the limp head and hears the shivering sigh

Kisses his friend, while down his cheek there steals

Sweet pity’s tear, “Goodbye old man, Goodbye”.

No honours wait him, medal, badge or star,

Though scarce could war a kindlier deed unfold;

He bears within his breast, more precious far

Beyond the gift of kings, a heart of gold.’

To end on a personal note, an estimated 3,000 blacksmiths and farriers from all sides played an essential role in supporting the war effort, from repairing and maintaining equipment to shoeing millions of horses. Among them was the father of a lifelong friend of mine who served in France in World War One. Like many he said little of his experiences other than confessing he unashamedly cried not so much for the soldiers but the horses he had  either lovingly tended but  had lost their lives or had to be put down as part of his duties. He returned in the same role in World War Two.

FOOTNOTE: The Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park, London, commemorates the countless animals that have served and died under British military command throughout history. It was designed by English sculptor David Backhouse and unveiled in November 2004 by Princess Anne.

© John Ruler