The horses of war

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World War I horse-drawn artillery
During the Cambrai attack in 1918, a six-horse team pulls a Royal Artillery limber and gun while two mounted troopers lead the way. (Photo by David McLellan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve long been a student of military history; particularly of the British army during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

World War horses

A while back I read a book called The War Horses: The Tragic Fate of a Million Horses in the First World War, published in Great Britain in 2011 by Halsgrove House, Wellington, Somerset. The book was written by Simon Butler, an experienced author and publisher.

Butler writes that, although he’s a “non-horse” person, he has a deep interest in the “Great War,” as World War I is known in the UK.

The book’s dust jacket and the title page feature a photo of a team of horses pulling a water cart along a brush-reinforced pathway across a bog. One horse has slipped off the edge and is up to its belly in mud, while the soldier astride the near horse is holding up his head with the reins.

The author devotes the first chapter to the dependence of the British people upon the horse.

Early animal rights

He points out that during the 19th century, reformers were hard at work in Great Britain to eliminate the cruelty toward animals that had been common for centuries. The first anti-cruelty bill was passed by Parliament in 1822, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was sanctioned by Queen Victoria in 1840.

Horses of war

Chapters two and three cover the use of horses in war from the days of Julius Caesar through the Boer War at the beginning of the 20th century.

During this latter war an estimated 300,000 horses and mules died — many of them during the ocean voyage from England to South Africa, while others were eaten by the starving British forces in the cities of Kimberly and Ladysmith, both of which were surrounded and besieged by the Boers for about four months.

When the First World War began in 1914, patriotism ran high and the young men of Great Britain and its Dominion countries flocked to the colors. Horses and mules were another matter, however.

The Army really had no idea how many animals would be needed and the armed forces were chronically short of transport during the conflict. In addition, many of the best animals were allotted to the cavalry, which, according to the usual practice, was expected to be the decisive arm in the conflict.

War weapons

Unfortunately there was barbed wire to contend with, and weapons such as artillery and the machine gun had been much improved. These new wrinkles in warfare came as a surprise to 19th century officers, and men and horses were mowed down and blasted into oblivion indiscriminately.

After the first few months of combat, when the war settled into the static trench war, by which World War I has always been defined, the cavalry on both sides was very little used.

The cavalry mounts, however, were kept ready for several years for the decisive cavalry breakthrough that the British Commander Sir Douglas Haig, an old cavalryman, believed was imminent and that never came.

Pain and suffering

I won’t go into how horses were commandeered from farms and livery stables all over Great Britain and purchased at inflated prices in Canada and the United States, but Mr. Butler tells all about it.

The chapters titled: Into the Valley of Death and The Pity of War, are a difficult read for horse lovers, describing as they do the horrors of war that befell the animals. The descriptions of the suffering of the poor critters exposed to chlorine or mustard gas are especially saddening.

The combat soldiers themselves were sensitive to the animals’ misery. A Lieutenant Dixon wrote:

“Heaving about in the filthy mud of the road was an unfortunate mule with both of his forelegs shot away. The poor brute, suffering God knows what untold agonies and terrors, was trying desperately to get to its feet which weren’t there. I had my revolver with me, but couldn’t get near the animal. Shells were arriving pretty fast – we made some desperate attempts to get to the mule so that I could put a bullet behind its ear into the brain, but to no avail.

“By lingering there, trying to put the creature out of its pain I was risking not only my life but also my companions. The shelling got more intense – perhaps one would hit the poor thing and put it out of its misery.”

Horse deaths

There are more vignettes of the wastage of horseflesh, which Butler estimates at 1 million, including those lost by the French, but not the other combatants.

The British Army Veterinary Corps reportedly treated 725,216 horses for wounds and injuries over the course of the war and successfully healed at least 529,064, many of which were returned to duty and may have died later.

After the war, many surplus animals were destroyed or sold to work on French farms, or for meat; which raised a great ruckus in Great Britain whose people had more of an aversion to eating horse flesh than the French seemed to.

As I mentioned, this is not a book for the squeamish, but for those who are interested in how horses were used (and abused) in the past, it’s a must read.

A future column will chronicle how the scarcity of horses to do farm work was dealt with in Great Britain.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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