‘The soldier came to regard his horse almost as an extension of his being.’
J M Brereton, the author of The Horse in War.
With Remembrance Sunday just behind us and the up coming release of Michael Morpurgo’s ‘The War Horse’ , I thought it would be topical to do a piece on just how much horses were used throughout war.
Horses were heavily used in World War One and their main use was for transport. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) were stationed in France and relied heavily on horses.
It is thought that of the one million horses sent into WW1, only 67,000 returned.
These horses and mules were used for different jobs depending on their height and weight. The smaller horses and mules (between 15hh 2ins and 16hh, weighing up to 1,200lbs) were used for ‘light draught’ jobs such as to pull light artillery limbers, wagons and ambulances, to carry supplies and munitions, or to perform other important odds and ends – either individually or in teams.
‘Goodbye Old Man’ by Fortunino Matania
Larger horses such as shires were put together to carry larger artillery pieces but were replaced as time went on due to guns expanding and needing tractors and bigger vehicles to pull them.
With such large numbers of animals, food was an issue. The normal ration for a light draught horse during a ‘normal’ spell in France was 12lbs of oats, 10lbs of hay and some bran for a bran mash at least once a week. However, as we all know, horses need food to keep their strength up and without it or with very little of it, horses tend to get weaker, like us humans. During the war, cries of ‘saddler – a plate and a punch’ could be heard which meant that the saddler was needed to put another hole in the girth of a horse as it has got too big.
Accommodation for the animals also became an issue as in the summer, picket lines sufficed, during the winter months, the Army were in the tricky situation of whether to clip the equines and risk pneumonia or keep their long, shaggy coats to keep them warm but would risk them getting infectious skin diseases. The decision was made to clip the coats which then resulted in losing many mules and horses in the first winter. Then because of this, it became standard Army procedure to clip just the legs and bellies from 1918.
Much care was taken over the horses and the mules because soldiers understood just how hard they were working. They witnessed the fatigue and disease which sometimes overcame their animals and so, Convalescent Horse Depots were built. These were buildings where the animals could be taken for treatment and cure. If tiredness was the problem, they were allowed respite in the form of large, open fields rather than a muddy, bloody war ground.
Ten day courses of lectures were arranged to soldiers on how to care for the horses and mules should they get ill because with the lack of professionally trained vets, a soldier with even basic training on equine science could spot a minor ailment and this could be treated before it became serious and incurable.
Also to ensure the well-being of our animals, chief horse-masters were appointed and below those, sub-ordinate horse masters were also appointed. Experts in horses and stable management, they were the ones to turn to when advice was needed. They were also the ones in charge of watching over those working with horses and sorted out any soldiers who were either incapable or negligent in caring for the animals.
Due to the Veterinary Corps, should a British Army equine be taken out of line, it had a 78% chance of recovery and return of active service. Bearing in mind the fact that veterinary science is no where near as advanced as human science; this seems amazing and proves that the ‘Royal’ prefix that the Veterinary Corps received was entirely deserved.
So when you hear about the goings on around the world with all the hate and the violence, remember the innocent victims of the war that are not always noted. The horses and mules that gave their lives for us too. Lest we forget.
The Stable Doctor
Advice is given without legal responsibility
Research: History, First World War