Equine Soldiers of the Great War (1914 – 1918)
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As countries around the world commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War, it is appropriate to also acknowledge the significant role of horses during the conflict.
The Role of Horses
All combatants in the conflict used horses to varying degrees, as the cavalry was considered an essential offensive element of the military. Motorized transport was still unreliable. Indeed the cavalry was the forerunner of today’s tank regiments, which often still use the term in modern armies, such as Custer’s 7th Cavalry, which exists to this day.
Horses were also used for logistical support, being better than mechanized vehicles in negotiating rough terrain. They were invaluable for reconnaissance and carrying messengers. Their strength was used to move artillery and ammunition wagons, ambulances, supply wagons, and field
kitchens. It took 6 to 12 horses to pull a field gun. Steady animals were needed amidst the chaos. The deep mud in many areas of the front proved to be a dangerous obstacle.
Mules and donkeys served the military, as well as horses, to move supplies and guns. Those who served with all these animals had great affection for them.
The WW1 invention of tanks and aeroplanes and the onset of trench warfare with its use of poison gas, barbed wire, and machine guns rendered the cavalry almost obsolete on many fighting fronts.
It was often said that it was easier to replace a soldier than it was to replace a horse. This was due to the fact that shipping horses, their tack, and supplies needed to maintain them was much more challenging than the shipment of soldiers and their personal tools of war. With the value of the horse being significant, it was a tactical maneuver to create blockades preventing the movement of horses to forces in need. Lack of obtaining remounts contributed to the German defeat. Even the well-supplied American artillery was immobilized by lack of horsepower in some instances by war’s end.
Where They Came From
Horses were shipped from many locations. Britain imported horses from Australia, Canada, the U.S, and Argentina, also requisitioning them from British citizens. Many soldiers took their personal horse with them. Different breeds served different purposes. However, less well bred horses often did better in war conditions.
Canada sent about 130,000 horses overseas during the First World War. By war’s end, Canada supplied well over 10 per cent of the horses used on the Western Front, a quarter of them killed every year. “Morning Glory” was taken by her Quebec owner, George Harold Baker, who volunteered overseas. They were separated from the outset and Baker (who tried to keep track of her) was later killed as part of the infantry. The horse was one of the very few lucky ones to return (ensured by an officer friend of Baker’s), passing away on a Quebec farm in 1936. John McCrae, writer of “In Flanders Fields” also took his horse “Bonfire” overseas, and would write letters back to young relatives signed by his horse complete with hoof print.
Challenges to the safety and well-being of the horses were numerous. There was the predictable danger of weaponry. As food was often scarce, many animals succumbed to starvation. Disease, caused by impossible living conditions and insects, was often rampant. Veterinary care to handle injuries was limited. Rough terrain often proved too difficult to negotiate, and some animals had to be abandoned. Gas warfare began in 1915, and added another threat to the animals.
British statistics alone indicate 120,000 horses were treated by army vets in the first year for wounds and disease, and almost three-quarters of a million were treated over the course of the war, half a million successfully. It is interesting to note that modern horse trailers came from the horse ambulances developed to evacuate equines to field hospitals.
It is difficult to come up with an estimate of how many horses actually served in the Great War because all sides and countries used them. One estimate is around six million, with a large percentage of them dying due to war-related causes. Another states 8 million horses, plus the countless donkeys and mules which died on all sides on the Western Front. During the Battle of Verdun, 7000 horses were killed on both sides on one day in March. U.S. estimates were that over 6,500 horses and mules were drowned or killed by shell fire on Allied ships attacked by the Germans.
Overall, about 25 per cent were killed, and more in large numbers also succumbed to disease, malnutrition and injury. Britain had over a million.
horses and mules in service, and lost over 484,000 horses in that war: statistically one horse for every two men. The German army mobilized 715,000 horses and the Austrians 600,000 (or one for every three men) in the first few weeks of the war, and later resorted to capturing or seizing horses in areas they held. The Brabant and Ardennes horses of the French and Belgian armies were high on the list because of their strength and disposition.
Between 1914 and 1918 the United States sent about 1.2 million horses over severely depleting the domestic supply; only 200 returned. Only one, named Sandy, returned to Australia because of quarantine laws. Some breeds, like the already rare Cleveland Bay in England, were almost wiped out,.
Sadly the fate that befell surviving horses after Armistice Day was sometimes worse. Having done their patriotic duty many were slaughtered, or endured lives of hard labour. Sometimes they were shot by their own regiments to prevent future abuse at the hands of new owners. A legacy of this is the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital which continues to serve equines around Cairo, Egypt. It was opened in 1934 by the Brooke Trust, established in 1930 by a British woman finding hundreds of previously Allied-owned horses living in poor conditions, after they were sold to Egyptians. It helped over 5,000 horses that had served in World War I.
“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”
The horse is the animal most associated with war. Its value, in battle and to the morale of those who fought, was invaluable. Far more died than survived that conflict. They are immortalized through tributes in many forms: paintings, sculptures, monuments, poetry, novels, drama, and music. For those who love horses, this comes as no surprise; for those who do not know horses, this is a good beginning to getting to know them.
Prepared for Headwaters Equine Leadership Group, Education Sub- Committee by Maureen Richardson and Diana Janosik-Wronski