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Horses Serving in the Great War

November 1, 2022

Forward - A First World War Cavalry Recruitment Poster

When we look back at the armies that fought in the Great War, we often think about the soldiers suffering in muddy, wet trenches. Or of technological marvels like tanks, aeroplanes, Zeppelin airships, dreadnought battleships and submarines. It is easy to forget how new all these machines were—in 1913, Henry Ford had put together his assembly line which would make the Model T a vehicle that many families could afford. In 1917, Ford created the Model TT Truck, selling 12,000 to the U.S. Army—there was no civilian production. But this was the exception that proved the rule—most soldiers marched to the front and horses cadged in their supplies and towed just about everything that the men could not carry.

At the outbreak of the Great War, Canada had an army of just 3,110 men and though Great Britain had a much larger military, it had just 25,000 horses. As war spread across Europe, all countries immediately needed many more equines—as millions of men filled the ranks, millions of horses were needed to haul their kit. As recruiters were trying to persuade any able bodied men to enlist, the armies were also scouring the countryside for work horses. For many farmers, the team was as much a beloved part of the family as house pets are today. As they brought their companion to Lindsay for inspection, many undoubtedly couldn’t help but wonder where the journey would end up. Few would return. Even as a million horses crossed the Atlantic, armies of all nations in the field faced a constant shortage of four-legged help.

Armies of the Great War couldn’t do much without horses. They hauled in supplies, pulled the ambulances filled with wounded soldiers and towed the field guns. They also had to cadge in their own food—they hauled in more fodder than anything else. It took six to twelve animals to pull each field gun, typically through the shell holes and the mud that characterized the front. For centuries, the mounted warrior had been a powerful symbol of military power, and though cavalry had a hard time surviving in the age of the rifle, the government played upon young men’s dreams of charging in to battle on a steed to recruit soldiers. The Canadian Cavalry Corps, based in Hamilton, promoted themselves as Canada’s Crack Cavalry Corps, even in the age of the machine gun. Behind every soldier in the field, a trusty old horse was at work.

Horses were large, conspicuous, easy targets. There were no trenches for them or their crews to take cover in, as they worked just behind the lines. Brave horses continued to haul field guns, through the mud and shell holes, even when exposed to constant shelling. Much like what happened to soldiers, working in these conditions traumatized them, making them skittish. Some were even made to charge into the face of machine guns. In these dramatic spectacles, everyone knew that a lot of horses and men were going to die. But if there were enough mounted warriors, some of them might make it through. Hard as it is to believe, mounted Canadian troops charged machine guns, even after their commanders learned the costly lessons of the Somme and Passchendaele, even in 1918. War artist Alfred Munnings captured the horrors they endured while accompanying the Canadian Cavalry Brigade.

About 6,500 horses and mules were killed by shellfire or drowned on convoys crossing the Atlantic. Nevertheless, at the peak of the trans-Atlantic shipments, about 1,000 horses were arriving per day in Europe to make good the losses of the British Army. About one-quarter of equine deaths were from battle, the remainder were from disease and exhaustion. It was hard to feed horses properly at the front, hay and oats were rationed, and the need for all that horse fodder had to be weighed against soldiers’ rations and arms, in armies facing a constant shortage of draft animals.

Soldiers loved their horses and did what they could to care for them. When necessary, the armies fitted horses with gas masks, and only 210 horses were killed by poison gas—far fewer than the number of soldiers. The British Army had field veterinary hospitals to try to care for their animals, just as they tried to treat all the wounded soldiers. Nevertheless, about one sixth of equines serving in the British army died annually, a total of 484,000 over the course of the war. Some other countries lost far more. It is not known exactly how many horses died in the Great War, but it is estimated at 6 to 8 million.

As much as the Great War was hell on earth for the soldiers who served, it was equally so for the equines who faithfully worked beside them. By the end of the war, so many horses had died, that some armies were finding it very difficult to continue operations. Even when the war ended, many horses were not shipped home due to quarantine restrictions—despite the feelings of attachment of many soldiers they had served with.

Not one chose to go to war, faithfully they served, and painfully they suffered, loyal even unto death.

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