One hundred years ago, in the muddy and battle-scarred fields and forests of France and Belgium, the “war to end all wars” was entering its final, desperate throes.
Last time I talked about the horrors of barbed wire as used in the conflict, and this time it’s about the equally horrible toll the conflict took on horses and mules.
I’ve long been a student of military history, and particularly of the British army during the 19th and early 20th centuries, so the book, The War Horses, sub-titled: The Tragic Fate of a Million Horses in the First World War, was right up my alley.
The book was written by Simon Butler and published by Halsgrove House, Wellington, Somerset, in 2011.
On the book’s dust jacket is a photo of a team of horses who had been pulling a water cart along a brush-reinforced pathway across a bog. The off horse has slipped off the edge and has sunk up to his belly in mud, while a soldier astride the near horse is tugging up the stuck animal’s head with the reins.
The first chapter tells of the dependence of the British people upon horses and contains many illustrations of horses at work.
The author points out that in 19th century England, many reformers were trying to eliminate the cruelty toward animals that had been common for centuries. Parliament passed an anti-cruelty bill in 1822, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was sanctioned by Queen Victoria in 1840.
Chapters two and three explain the use of horses in wars from the Roman times through the Boer War at the beginning of the 20th century. During the latter war, an estimated 300,000 horses and mules died, many of them during the long ocean voyage from England to South Africa, and many others were eaten by the surrounded and starving British forces and inhabitants in the besieged cities of Kimberly and Ladysmith.
Patriotism was high when the Great War began in 1914, and the young men of Great Britain and its dominions rushed to enlist.
Horses and mules weren’t so easy to procure, however. The British General Staff had no idea how many animals would be needed and the armed forces were chronically short of transport during the conflict.
Then, too, many of the best animals were assigned to the cavalry, which generals, trained during the 1800s, expected to be the decisive arm in the upcoming battles. But, this was the 20th century and there were barbed wire entanglements, rapid-fire machine guns, and much more accurate and deadly high explosive artillery to contend with.
These innovations in warfare came as a surprise to those officers, and men and animals on both sides were mowed down and blasted into oblivion indiscriminately.
After the first few months of combat, when the war settled into static trench warfare, the cavalry was hardly used, but Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander and an old cavalry officer who once remarked, “Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the man on a horse,” kept thousands of mounts ready for the decisive cavalry breakthrough that never came.
Butler tells how horses were commandeered from farms and livery stables all over Great Britain, and when that supply was exhausted, were purchased at inflated prices in the United States.
The chapters titled, Into the Valley of Death and The Pity of War, are a difficult read for horse lovers, describing 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.”
There are many more tales about the loss of horses, which Butler estimates to have been 1 million, including those lost by the French, although he doesn’t include those lost by Germany and its allies.
In comparison, more than 1.1 million soldiers of the British Empire died in the war (accounts vary), while more than 2 million were wounded.
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, most of the surplus animals were destroyed or sold to the French for 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, and may not have been as hungry since most of the war was fought on French soil.
This is not a book for the squeamish, but for anyone interested in how horses were used (and abused) in the past, it’s a must-read.
The more I study “The Great War,” the more amazed I am that men who experienced that bloody carnage could have started another such conflict just 20 years later.
As an aside, Stephen Spielberg directed a great movie called War Horse about a horse named “Joey” that is commandeered into the conflict and survives. It’s worth watching.
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