A tribute to the horses of World War One - Surrey equestrian
- Credit: Horse&Rider
This month, Alison Bridge, editor-in-chief of Horse&Rider in Grayshott, pays tribute to the horses who gave so much during World War One...
In this year’s centenary of World War One, we rightly remember the servicemen and women who gave their lives to fight for our country. However, it’s also a time to remember the animals who fought so hard, suffered so much, and gave their lives too – or were tragically abandoned to a slow death when the conflict was over.
When news of the war broke out in July 1914, Britain boasted a cavalry of about 100,000 men but only owned around 25,000 horses, so 165,000 horses and mules aged three to 12 were bought, trained, formed into squadrons and sent to the Western Front. Quickly, the forces realised that this time war was different; trenches, machine guns and barbed wire rendered the cavalry charge obsolete – and lethal. But being more reliable than military vehicles, equines were still invaluable for transporting supplies and ammunition, especially in the appalling conditions of the trenches. These brave creatures also retrieved the wounded on stretchers placed on carriages, which meant they were choked by gas attacks, caught up in treacherous barbed wire and left injured in no-man’s land.
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By 1917, the British Army had employed over 530,000 horses and 230,000 mules. As the war raged on, more and more equines were lost in the field and others became wounded or sick. Soon, the British Army was buying about 15,000 horses a month to maintain numbers and it has been calculated that around half a million horses owned by the British Army were killed over the war years. As a result of Britain’s horses fighting overseas, many farmers and workers at home had to seek alternatives to the horse, and there were some surprising options – camels pulling carts laden with metal, machines and munitions became commonplace. An elephant was even used on a farm in Horley, and apparently it could do the job of three horses!
A friend in need
The utter horror of the war to which man and beast were exposed meant they sought solace in each other’s company. Poignant images show soldiers tenderly watering their trusty steeds behind the front line. Troops fitted special equine gas masks to their beloved friends and charity posters declaring ‘Help the Horse to Save the Soldier’ showed how protecting equines during the bloodshed was seen as a priority. Cady Cyril Hoyte, who joined the Machine Gun Corps at just 19, recalls in his diary: “The saddest moment of all came when we had to part with our horses. We realised that the horses had been as important as the men and intelligent animals as they were, appeared to be proud of the regiment to which they belonged.”
Help for heroes
As the 1918 Armistice Day passed, shell-shocked survivors began to make their way home. But what of the surviving horses and mules? Many of these domesticated equines were now wandering aimlessly and alone through the desolate battlefields, with no food, water, or protection from the elements. Animal campaigners Our Dumb Friends League (now the Blue Cross) launched an appeal to buy back as many of these brave animals as possible, either to be put peacefully to sleep or to be pensioned off in comfort. Sadly, they couldn’t help all the stricken equines. Such was the use of horses on the Western Front that over eight million died on all sides fighting in the war. Two-and-a-half million horses were treated in veterinary hospitals with about two million being sufficiently cured that they could return to duty. Of the million British horses sent overseas to help with the war effort, only 62,000 returned home. They, and their lost equine comrades, deserve a thought when we’re remembering the horrors of the First World War.
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