• War Horses •
As soon as war was declared, preparations were made to round up the large number of horses that would be needed to pull artillery wagons, ambulances and guns and deliver supplies, quite apart from the cavalry regiments who would be attacking enemy lines. The Remount Service was in charge of this complicated operation and, in the first twelve days of the war, they managed to find over 165,000 horses for military service. In London, Remount officials could stop any likely-looking horse they came across and take it away, there and then. They would give the owner a receipt and he would be paid compensation by the Government if the horse was accepted for duty after having been examined by a vet. George Orwell writes of a London cabman bursting into tears when his horse was taken off so abruptly.
Around 40,000 horses went over to France with the BEF in 1914, lifted on to ships for a sea crossing which must have terrified them. Some died of heart attacks during the journey over, although the grooms and vets who went with the horses did their best to see they were as comfortable as possible. A different kind of suffering awaited the horses and mules (a cross between a donkey and a horse) when they set foot on solid ground in France. Those animals on the front line often had to deliver urgently-needed weapons and supplies under heavy enemy fire – particularly in the first few months of the war before both sides were dug into their trenches and there was more manoeuvring going on. Thousands were killed or maimed by bullets and shells. The photograph above, right, shows a driver and two horses, all wearing their gas masks.
The cavalry horses fared no better. When the war began, the cavalry was seen as a crack fighting force which contained some of the best and bravest officers, who would gallop through enemy lines and breach their defences for the infantry to follow. The reality was very different. Horses were powerless in the face of the huge guns and mortar attacks of twentieth-century warfare, and very soon the enemy lines were made up of trenches surrounded by a barrier of barbed wire which was impossible for man or horse to penetrate. By the end of the war, most of the fighting cavalry regiments had been dismounted and were serving as infantry soldiers on foot, while the horses were mainly used for pulling guns, equipment and ambulances, delivering supplies and communications work.
Eventually, so many horses were needed as the war continued that the Remount Service had to look for them further afield, in North America and Canada. It was difficult to care for so many animals together under war conditions, when proper feed and water were often impossible to find and many of the soldiers knew little about horses or riding. The Veterinary Corps did a wonderful job in training the men in charge of horses, and the army also created Convalescent Horse Depots where the animals could be taken whenever possible for rest and treatment. Even so, many thousands died of disease and exhaustion, besides enemy action. In total, 256,000 of the horses and mules who served in the Great War never returned. What must they have thought of the terrible battlefields to which they were sent across the sea? It is difficult to imagine. We do know, though, how greatly the soldiers came to value and love the brave animals they served alongside.