Romsey’s real-life war horses take centre stage as the town prepares permanent tribute
- Credit: Archant
When the National Theatre’s award-winning production of Michael Morpurgo’s eponymous novel, War Horse, galloped into Hampshire audiences were gripped by this moving tale of WW1’s forgotten casualties.
Look around Romsey and there’s no shortage of monuments to the borough’s great and good. Lord Palmerston stands resolute outside the Town Hall, while Lord Louis Mountbatten’s tombstone lies within the Abbey. Excitement is growing however, ahead of the unveiling of a new statue dedicated to the tens of thousands of four-legged heroes that served on the Western Front, and who were prepared for duty, right here.
Spurred-on by a successful arts project held at King John’s House in 2011, that saw hundreds of miniature terracotta war horses created, a group of local history enthusiasts has marshalled public support and financial backing, to turn this latest window on their past into a reality.
“What I find interesting is that most of the population thought the First World War would be over by Christmas 1914,” says historian Phoebe Merrick, chair of the Romsey War Horse project, “but the military authorities didn’t think that, and were busy building the new remount depot in Romsey during the autumn and into 1915.”
Phoebe has been inspired to track down more details about this extraordinary army camp, the Romsey Remount Depot, having read the diaries of its commandant, Colonel Jessel.
It is the scale of the operation that stuns her. “If you take both the town and rural Romsey, you’re looking at under 7,000 people. You then have over 2,000 men and up to 5,000 horses planted, at any one time, a mile up Pauncefoot Hill, on the flat ground at the top.
“I think it must have been horrendous because a lot of the animals came from North America. These were offloaded at Devonport and then put on trains and brought here. Then, because the railway is to the north and Pauncefoot is to the south west, they would have had to come through Romsey’s narrow streets with several hundred horses at any one time.”
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The remount depot was not new. First established in 1887 to provide animals for military service, it played an important role in South Africa in the Boer War and provided a ready supply of horses,
mules, donkeys and even camels, to meet the needs of the British Army’s other overseas campaigns.
They worked not just to support its cavalry divisions, as - despite the later arrival of motorised vehicles - traditional horse-power was still much in demand for transporting supplies and for pulling gun carriages and ambulances. As a specialist training centre, Romsey reportedly handled 120,000 of the native working horses and the semi-wild horses purchased from overseas by the Remount Service.
Centred on Ranvilles Farm, records show the 500-acre site was split into a north and south camp. With both a military and veterinary hospital it housed up to ten squadrons, each of which had several dozen horse breakers, a farrier sergeant, shoeing smiths and saddlers, and was supported by local civilian workers.
Phoebe says: “In the early stages of the war most of those based here were enlisted men with experience of managing horses – the officers might have had racing or hunt stables. But particularly after 1916, when there was conscription, the healthiest, fittest men were sent out to the Front. The remount depots had those men who were slightly less fit and some who didn’t know one end of a horse from another.”
For the travel-weary animals arriving at Romsey, the first stop was usually a grass kraal overlooking the Test Valley. “They must have been stressed-out,” Phoebe says. “Put on low rations with lots to drink, apparently, they used to be seen to lie down and roll around, obviously unwinding. As the kraal was rather windy they lined it with hessian, but unfortunately the mules ate that.”
Becoming battlefield-ready meant putting the horses through their paces depending on their intended use as heavy or light draught, officers’ or other riding horses, and pack carriers.
They remained a futher three or four weeks at the camp, providing a short respite, before the ship’s horn marked their departure from Southampton Docks - and for the majority - their final steps on these shores.
The Romsey Remount Depot’s closure in 1919 saw the site, which had been rented from the Broadlands Estate, returned to rolling farmland. But not before some of the horse shelters and huts had been recycled by neighbouring communities into comrades’ clubs and village halls.
Now with over a third of the £70,000 fund-raising target already met, it is on the site of the old camp where, fittingly, the life-size war horse and trooper is due to take pride of place, when the Depot’s centenary is celebrated next spring.
Harnessing horsepower into art
Standing at 16.1 hands high, the bronze resin statue is being created by sculptor Amy Goodman, based at Project Workshops in Quarley. From a flying family of Pegasus currently soaring above a Nottingham shopping mall to a stallion cantering through the countryside, Amy is no stranger to creating striking equine artworks. She has made a model, or maquette, of the war horse and is currently building the full-size metal frame for the clay work for casting.
Test Valley’s arts officer, Alex Hoare, was involved in selecting the artist and believes Amy’s is a design that shows an understanding for both the practicality and the poetry required.
“We were keen to commission someone locally,” she says. “Amy’s star is in the ascendency and she shone out as an emerging artist who is currently doing some really significant work. She has a passion for horses and is truly enthusiastic about this memorial. It’s good to be able to support her.”
Amy took the Remount Depot’s “Pals” emblem, along with Alfred Munnings’ painting of Hampshire’s Great War hero Major General Jack Seely and his famous thoroughbred Warrior as inspiration.
“Being involved in the Romsey War Horse project is such an honour. I wish to convey the powerful bond between horse and soldier, despite their hardship through war,” she says.
And with the maquette having won the British Sporting Art Trust’s Best Sculpture award at London’s Mall Galleries, she’s already on the way to acheiving her goal.
For Phoebe too the final statue, once erected, sends out a clear message. “We are acknowledging this part of Romsey’s history,” she says. “It would be so easy to overlook what was a very major contribution to the First World War.”
To find out more and to donate to the fund then visit www.romseywarhorse.co.uk
Wave the flag, and let them go! -
Hats off to that wistful row
Of lean heads of brown and bay,
Black and chestnut, roan and grey!
Here’s good luck in lands afar -
Snow-white streak, and blaze, and star!
May you find in those far lands
Kindly hearts and horsemen’s hands!
From: The Remount Train, by William Henry Ogilvie (1915)