Tragic fate of many horses in World War I

Stuck American ammunition wagon

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.

War Horse

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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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.


  1. The men who men who experienced that bloody carnage *didn’t* start another war just 20 years later. Their leaders did it for them.

    The best thing that ever happened to horses was mechanisation of the cavalry, although sadly, horses were still in widespread use during the early years of WWII as well.

  2. I will not read this book as I am one of those that would cry a river. I had seen the movie, War Horse and read somewhere as well about the slaughter of these horses at the end of WW1. How tragic. Can I ask How could this decision be made after all these horses did to assist the brave soldiers?
    Some may like to learn more but not through these books or movies, so I suggest the episode last night January 22, 2023 of All Creatures Great and Small on PBS. My Mom was a huge fan of Harriot books, her Dad was a vet in Farmington, Maine and she lost her beloved brother in WW2.
    Back to last nights episode that covered this slaughter and the effect war, these horses and later years were tied together in heroism and tragedy. I recommend this for it’s historical lessons and changes we have made both to our animals and soldiers.

    • I saw that episode last night and that is why I googled what happened to the horses after world war 1. I really liked that episode as it showed how Siegfried saved a horse with problems with patience and kindness while the owners wanted to put the horse down. I still don’t know why most of the horses were killed after world war 1.

  3. I’m here also because I just watched that episode. Google sculptor Susan Leland’s war horse memorial (and the poem accompanying it) What a beautiful, sad tribute to these magnificent animals.

  4. I watched the episode tonight as I had it recorded. I was applauded with the order to kill the horses. My Grandfather fought in the Meuse Argonne Offensive. I am disgusted with what he was subjected to during that battle. I am disgusted with the killing of the horses. The horses were soldiers as were the men. The killing of the wonderful, devoted animals because it was too expensive to ship them home. How dare they! I have to wonder if they considered killing the 110,000 wounded soldiers in that battle and all others who suffered from “shell shock”. Disgusting treatment of our Patriots!! I have heard our canine soldiers are being left behind after we leave a war. We have one only one war since 1945, the Gulf War 1991. We lost Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan which were all civil wars where we didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand their type of warfare. To make matters worse, we abruptly leave Afghanistan and leave all our military equipment and dogs.

  5. I hope we have evolved enough to treat ALL creatures with love and compassion. But no, we continue to harm those who require safe care, help, and shelter – ignorance and impatience, vulgarity and violence seem to be the norm from some people who just don’t see that unkindness is detrimental not only to their victims, but also to themselves.


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