The Real War Horses Of World War One

“This one isn’t just any old horse. There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them. And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy abomination of a war, is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe as a creature like this.” Michael Morpurgo, ‘War Horse’.

A new book, ‘Cupid’s War’, has just come out in which Martin Laurie charts the wartime exploits of his grandfather and great-grandfather, Vernon and Ranald Laurie, who brought the family horses, Cupid, Flashlight, Polly and Nimrod, overseas to serve alongside them. It sounds like it could be a tear-jerker!

Horses played a massive part in the Great War, despite the fact that advances in technology meant that they were often hopelessly outmatched; think Cavalry charging down machine guns. That’s exactly what happened at the Battle of Bazentin Ridge in the Somme, 14th July 1916, thanks to a delay in High Command decision making. According to ‘The Western Front Companion’ by Mark Adkin, the attack on High Wood had initially been planned as a cavalry charge by the 2nd Indian Division, led by the 7th Dragoon Guards and Deccan Horse. Several things changed between the plan being formulated and the charge taking place; for one, the wood was, by an oversight, left entirely unprotected by the Germans for several hours, but the infantry, actually on the scene, were not given permission to move in, but were instead told to wait for the cavalry (several miles away over churned battlefields). The 1st and 3rd Cavalry Divisions were also available for dispatch, in the same location as the Indian Division, but it was not considered necessary to order them forward too. Then, there was the long delay between the Cavalry arriving- already hours after the order to move forward- and the order to charge, given well after the Germans had discovered the gap in their defences, plugged it, and filled the surrounding fields as well as the wood with troops. Total massacre of man and horse resulted.

This slaughter was partly the result of poor lines of communication at the Front around that time, and party due to the fact that High Command had not yet learned the value of a surprise attack against a formidable and well-organised enemy. Much of the problem, though, was down to the blind faith of the old Army Commanders in the supremacy of a Cavalry charge. As Philip Warner explains in his ‘World War One: a Chronological Narrative’, most of the World War One Generals had risen to their lofty positions via the Cavalry regiments. Throughout the centuries, the soldier had developed a very strong bond with his horse. Development of certain weapons, such as crossbows and even tanks, had been held up partly by the leaders’ wariness of any tools that threatened the horse’s dominion on the battlefield. So blind was their faith that some Commanders truly believed a good cavalry charge should be able to defeat a machine gun (though experience in the Boer War should have taught them otherwise).

That is not to say that the horse was not useful in the war; on the contrary, neither side could do without their horses. They were strong, faithful, adaptable to many different terrains and weathers, and far less likely than a tank to break down! Apart from carrying troops into battle, horses of various classes and sizes were used to haul heavy guns, such as the widely-used Vickers Gun, as well as supply wagons, ambulances, munitions, packs, water and stoves. It was of course extremely difficult to keep a horse healthy on the Front, since they consumed colossal amounts of hay and water, but both armies judged the hassle to be well worth it, as is evidenced by the sheer number of horses and mules transported overseas. ‘The Great War Companion’ puts the total of horses and mules transported from foreign countries to Britain, then on to the Western Front, as 411,993. This is on top of 165,000 supplied from Britain itself at the start of the war, and as many more after that as the government could purchase.

‘The First World War: a Miscellany’ puts the total number that died by the end of the war at 256,000. They died in battle or artillery barrages, but also in transit, with 6,500 killed when their ships were attacked or sunk, and of starvation and exhaustion. This is not to say that the Army treated their horses cruelly; on the contrary, the great majority of soldiers loved their horses and went out of their way to treat them well. However, it was said that you could judge the health of an army’s supply line by the condition of its animals, and on many occasions those supply lines were very patchy indeed!

The Cavalry horses in the Western Front certainly got a workout, although by the end many of the pack-horses had been replaced by tractors and tank attacks were beginning to be trusted over Cavalry charges. They took part in many of the greatest battles, including the Battle of Mons, the Second Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Verdun, the Battle of Arras, the Battle of Moreul Wood, and even the Battle of Cambrai, more widely remembered as a tank victory. They proved crucial in the Palestine campaign, when ‘walers’, sturdy horses from New South Wales carefully bred from failed British race horses, proved that they could make a speedy dash across a desert landscape without tiring or faltering, even when severely underfed and under watered, thereby helping the Allies to surprise the Axis forces by taking remote Beersheba before the more obvious target of Gaza. As well, the Cavalry were ideally suited to pursuing the retreating enemy towards the end of the war, galloping into enemy lines and stopping the vanguard from destroying bridges and supplies, however unsuited to charging a machine gun.

There were also curious incidences of horses appearing to guard their riders in times of trouble. In one of the unique accounts held in Forces War Records’ Historic Documents Library, a C.Saye of XXX Brigade recalls: “14th April 1914 – Fairly quiet today. Me & a chum went out to look for some pom-pom shells where the pom-pom gun had been in action at La Cylate?  We cut across the fields & found a horse. We thought it was dead, but when we got to it, we found a Gunner lying underneath it. I heaved the horse over & my chum lifted the Gunner out. It was the most intelligent horse I ever saw, we thought it was dead, it was so still, but as soon as we got the poor chap clear, it lifted its head, looked round & then got up & stood looking at us while we attended to the Gunner.” It is not apparent whether this horse actually belonged to the wounded man, or simply noticed that he appeared to be in a vulnerable position and went to shield him. There are many stories like this in the annuls of war.

Many horses made the ultimate sacrifice in the Great War, with little recognition. The Dickin Medal, regarded by many as the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for animals, would not be instituted until 1943, well into the Second World War, and a government rule against shipping animals home at the end of the war, when so many men needed transport, meant that only 62,000 ever returned home. However, the sacrifice that these animals made in travelling to a frightening environment of loud noises and mayhem, in which they would faithfully carry their owners without understanding any of the reasons why they should be there, should not be forgotten. When technology overtook beasts in the field of warfare, men lost the companions who had comforted them in foreign lands; the horses could only gain from this development.




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