Real war horses remembered

War Horse book cover Joey, the fictional war horse of Micheal Morpurgo's novel, was brought to life first as a puppet in the stage play 'War Horse' and now as a star of the big screen in Stephen Spielberg's film. Although the horrors suffered by men in the first World War are well known, Joey has highlighted the suffering of the millions of horses who served at the frontline.

In the film, Joey is seen charging into machine gun fire, struggling to pull huge artillery guns through deep mud and becoming entangled in barbed wire - all dangers commonly encountered by the real war horses.

Even when they were not working, the horses were not safe. They were so vital to the war effort that they were deliberately targeted with shellfire by both sides. Horses were kept under camouflage to conceal them and were moved at irregular times to avoid the enemy being able to spot movement patterns which would make them easy targets.

Barbed wire, which until then had been used a agricultural fencing, was used to protect the trenches from attack. It was very effective - men and horses could get caught in it and be unable to free themselves. A panicking horse could cause even more damage to itself whilst trying to get free. Leg wounds, which are notoriously slow to heal due to the poor blood supply to the lower leg, often became infected or failed to heal - resulting in the horse being shot.

Horses wearing gas masks Other hazards were gas and caltropes. Although horse gas masks were used, many horses must have suffered the horrific effects of a gas attack resulting in skin and respiratory problems. Caltropes were iron spikes, used since the Middle Ages to disable horses. They were designed so that one spike was always upwards and were scattered on roads by the enemy. A horse stepping on a caltrope would be crippled. Apart from the manmade hazards, horses also had to suffer the harsh winter conditions at the front as well as the heavy mud and lack of food. Many of the German horses died through starvation.

Despite all this, the British Army horses suffered less than those of other nations. This was largely due to General Allenby and the lessons learnt in the Boer War. During that war, far more horses died through bad management than enemy action. WW1 saw much better management practises. Riders frequently dismounted and led their horses, and tack was regularly removed. By contrast the French cavalry remained mounted all day. It was said that you could smell the French cavalry a mile downwind due to suppurating sores on their horses.


Horses being commandeered at Brill, Buckinghamshire At the start of the war in 1914 the British Army had just 25,000 horses. The War Office's immediate task was to find another half a million to go into battle, drafted from the British countryside. As war progressed still more were needed and the Remount Department in Southampton had to purchase horses from overseas. The main source was the United States and between 1914 and 1917 about 1,000 horses a day were shipped to Europe. The horses were loaded onto ships with slings and conditions on board were very cramped. On top of which the ships were under constant enemy attack. On arrival the horses were carefully checked and, once passed fit for service, were sent to the front.

Horses were expected to serve until they were 15 years and, before the war, the usual criteria for purchasing military horses were:

  • 4 to 7 years old
  • gelding or not in foal mare
  • 15h 2in to 16h for light draught
  • 15h 1.5in to 15h 3in for cavalry
  • 14h 2in to 15h 1.5in for yeomanry
  • capable of carrying 15 stone

The demand for horses meant that these restrictions were relaxed during the war and many mules were also used, especially for carrying ammunition. The Army Act meant that horses could be impressed on payment of a fair price but farmers must have struggled to farm their land when most of the work was done by horses. The owner could appeal to the courts but this was probably not feasible for small farmers. Farmers would be told to bring all their horses to the village green for inspection so that suitable horses could be selected. Coloured horses, however, were unpopular with the army and many farmers tried to breed coloureds in order to avoid losing their farm animals to the war.

Romsey Remount Depot Many of the horses were sent to Romsey Remount Depot, often by train. In March 1915 the first two horses arrived, by 1916 more than 800 a day might be received, looked after by the 2,000 men stationed at the camp. The men included 'rough riders' (who broke in young horses), farriers and saddlers. It became increasingly difficult to find suitable men as many were themselves sent to the front. More than 4,000 horses and mules at a time could be at the Depot and most probably stayed for about a month. A fairly typical month was July 1916 when the daily 'ins' were recorded as 2,533 animals and the 'outs' as 1,374. During the course of the war a total of 118,755 animals came into Romsey and 114,636 were sent out for active service.

Cavalry horses

The cavalry were the shock troops of their day, used to punch holes through lines of infantry. Facing such a charge must have been terrifying, but warfare was changing in the early 1900s - machine gun fire could devastate the cavalry before they reached their target. At the start of the war it was expected that the cavalry would play a large part, as they had in the past, but as much of the war was fought in trenches they were used less than expected. Some cavalry units became infantry but the cavalry was used to some extent right to the end of the war. On the Eastern Front, where trenches were less common, the cavalry was used more.

Warrior book cover One cavalry horse was Warrior, a thoroughbred born on the Isle of Wight in 1907 and owned by General Jack Seely. In 1934 Jack Seely wrote a memoir of Warrior. This remarkably horse survived the entire war and went on to win the IOW Point-to-Point in 1922. He had had many narrow escapes during the war, amongst them: being released from his stable during a shell attack just seconds before the stable was hit; being uninjured when the horse stood next to him was killed by a shell; slipping into deep mud where other horses were lost, but he was pulled out; becoming lame after treading on a flint so that he missed a battle in which the 3 horses Jack Seely rode were killed. All this plus taking part in cavalry charges, including leading the charge which blocked the German offensive of spring 1918. Not surprisingly, when he died aged 33, newspaper obituaries dubbed him 'the horse the Germans couldn't kill'.

Another horse called Warrior also survived the war. This grey gelding took part in the early advances into France and was later injured by shrapnel. After the war Warrior was bought by animal lover, Hilda Moore, and donated to the police in Southampton. Their experience at the front made returning war horses ideal candidates for the police force and many made the transition. When he died in 1935, Warrior was given a civic burial next to the golf course at Southampton Sports Centre.

In 1914, 18 horses from the Toronto Police Mounted Unit were sent to the war as part of the first contingent of Canadian fighters. Only one, Bunny, survived but Bunny was left behind as it was considered too expensive to return horses to Canada. A campaign was mounted and money raised to return Bunny but sadly he had already been sold. This short video tells his story.

Draught horses

Horse in mud Whilst the cavalry had a limited function, draught horses were essential for pulling the artillery guns and for transporting equipment, supplies and wounded soldiers. In areas of deep mud, using horses and mules was the only way to move supplies, ammunition and guns. Gunner Philip Sylvester recalled that after the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 supplies had to be brought up 'over roads which were sometimes up to one's knees in slimy yellow-brown mud. The horses were up to their bellies in mud. We'd put them on a picket line between the wagon wheels at night and they'd be sunk in over their fetlocks the next day. We had to shoot quite a number.'

The work was so demanding that horses would collapse with exhaustion and some would drown, lacking the energy to raise their head out of the mud.

Each field gun required 6 to 16 horses to pull it. During the Battle of Cambrai, two 16 horse teams had their hooves, tack and pulling chains wrapped to reduce noise while they went into no man's land to capture enemy guns. Two guns were successfully returned to British lines, with the horses jumping a trench on the way back.

Jones and Joubert of the Royal Horse Artillery Two horses, Jones and Joubert, of the Royal Horse Artillery where sent to the front in 1914. They were sub-section leaders and stayed together through German shot and shell fire. Despite being in the thick of the action for 4 years, they were among the few who returned home unharmed. When untacked at their Aldershot base in 1919 they walked to the stables and stalls they had occupied before the war. They were awarded campaign medals which they wore on their browbands and were later retired to the countryside. The Commander considered Jones to embody the spirit of the plucky light draught horse. A silver statue of Jones takes pride of place in the centre of the dining table of the Officer's Mess at the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery and bronze copies are given to officers when they retire.

Veterinary care

Goodbye Old Man by Matania, used to raise funds for the Blue Cross The soldiers felt strongly about their horses. They would go into the fields to fetch corn and oats to give the horses. Water could be a real problem with the men often fetching buckets of water from streams while they were on the move. Despite this the horses lost weight and saddlers regularly had to put extra holes in the girths to stop the saddle slipping.

Care of horses improved during the war with the creation of special veterinary hospitals by the British Army and the involvement of the RSPCA. Two and a half million horses were treated in veterinary hospitals with about two million being able to return to duty.

Blue Cross vet treating a mule The Blue Cross was another charity which raised funds to provide care for horses at the front. The painting shown above, Goodbye Old Friend by Matania, was used to raise money for the Blue Cross fund. It shows a soldier reluctantly leaving his fatally wounded horse. The soldier already has the horse's harness over his arm and his comrade urges him to leave. More than 50,000 horses were treated in Blue Cross hospitals in France alone and veterinary supplies were received by more than 3,500 units of the British army.

Peace and the fate of the horses

Estimates of equine casualties during the war vary but probably around eight million horses, donkeys and mules died in total. Only about 1 in 10 of the million horses Britain sent to the Western Front returned. But for many of the horses that did survive the misery was not over. Large numbers were sold off, many to slaughter but often to a life of hard labour and neglect.

Rappi - captured American war horse With so many horses being sold off there was little thought of repatriating horses which had been captured by the Germans. The German government gave 32 captured American horses the same honours as their own war horse veterans. They all wore a special medal on their halter or bridle designating them as war heroes. The medal showed a German Iron Cross above the inscription 'Kreigsamerad', meaning 'war comrade'. The horse pictured with his medal was named Rappi by his proud new German owner. Rappi was thought to have served with the American artillery before being captured.

Australian horsemen played a large part in the war on the Eastern Front. Many of them had taken their own horse to war with them. Of the 160,000 Walers that had left Australia only 12,000 survived the war. But, as the men celebrated victory, they were dismayed by the order that all horses were to be left behind. First to Damascus book cover The reason given was the cost and the Australian quarantine laws but the men were distressed at leaving their mates behind, having just fought a war together. It is thought that only Major General Sir William Bridges' horse Sandy returned. Many men defied orders and shot their beloved horses rather than leave them in Egypt to an uncertain and possibly miserable fate. The officers were sympathetic and turned a blind eye. Some of the older and more battle weary horses were also shot for humane reasons. The remaining horses were sold - some went to India with the Indian army and some went to Britain with the army or British officers, but most went to slaughter or to local buyers.

Sadly the fate of many who remained in Egypt was much as the men had feared. In 1930 Dorothy Brooke, the wife of a British army major general, was horrified to see hundreds of emaciated horses being used as beasts of burden on the streets of Cairo. She was even more shocked to learn that these walking skeletons were ex-warhorses of the British, Australian and American forces. Dorothy Brooke managed to raise money from public contributions to buy 5,000 of these horses. Many were in such bad condition that they were humanely put down. Despite helping these horses Dorothy Brooke saw that thousands of horses, donkeys and mules were still suffering so in 1934 she founded the 'Old War Horse Memorial Hospital' in Cairo. With the promise of free veterinary care for all the city's working horses and donkeys, the Brooke Hospital for Animals was born.

Animals in War memorial, Park Lane, London Although the First World War was the last time that horses were used in large numbers, equines still serve in various roles in the British Army. They are most obvious in their ceremonial duties and in the displays given by the King's Troop but horses, or more often mules, also serve in areas such as Afghanistan where access is difficult for vehicles. We owe a huge debt to all these war horses - past and present - who help to preserve our way of life.

A tribute to British and German horses in postcards

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Posted on 30 January, 2012

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