100th Anniversary of Armistice Day & our debt to the 8 million Horses, Donkeys and Mules who left our green pastures, never to return…
My love of horses, history & culture brings me to write this, some accounts are harrowing. All my research has been done from factual war records…
Most of us are aware of the harrowing facts and numbers surrounding the fallen men and women of WW1. However, I don’t think the majority of us know the severity and the impact, the ‘Great” War had on over 8 million, Horses, donkeys and mules.
As we remember and pay our respects today to the fallen heroes, I feel it’s imperative that we don’t forget to show our gratitude to the millions of animals who bravely fought alongside our troops, yet never made it home.
At the start of the war, the British Army had 25000 horses, however due the horrors of trench warfare and rapid loss of life, compulsory subscription was then brought into force. Meaning the likes of you and I would have to ‘compulsory sell’ our beloved animals to the war effort. Many people took measures into their own hands and humanely put their horses to sleep before they could be seized, for fear of the horrors and terrifying conditions they would face.
Initially the horses were to be used as traditional cavalry horses, however they soon proved too vulnerable against the modern artillery. Which ultimately led to a change in role to transporting ammunition, ambulances, messages and food supplies. Horses became one of the most valuable commodities of the war, in-fact horses were considered so valuable that if a soldier’s horse was killed or died he was required to cut off a hoof and bring it back to his commanding officer to prove that the two had not simply become separated. They faced horrendous conditions whilst carrying out their line of duty, a staggering 3/4’s of their deaths, weren’t actually from gun fire or gas as you would initially assume.
It was a result of the sheer exhaustion, hunger and disease, due to the severity of the conditions they endured. Shelter was another problem. Most horses were simply attached to a picket line without a roof over their heads. In the winter, this meant that they were subjected to cold, wet conditions. Their winter coat was most often clipped short so that any skin diseases could be easily detected, but this had the unfortunate side effect of taking away their natural source of warmth. However, with lice and mange running rampant among the animals, it was a necessary measure to try to keep them healthy. Needless to say, the horses were suffering right along with the humans.
On a single day during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, 7,000 horses were killed by long-range shelling on both sides, including 97 killed by single shots from a French naval gun. The losses were particularly heavy among Clydesdale horses, which were used in teams of 6 to haul the guns, an incredible hit to our native breed.
The more well-bred horses (deriving from compulsory subscription), suffered terribly from shell shock, whereas their less refined compatriots faired a little better, they could even be taught to lie down and take cover at the sound of artillery fire. When the horses were injured, they were taken to the Royal Veterinary Corps Hospital, however many were injured beyond repair… Below is a graphic account of this from Lieutenant RG Dixon:
“Heaving about in the filthy mud off the road was an unfortunate mule with both of his forelegs shot away. The poor brute, suffering God knows what untold agonies and terrors, was trying desperately to get to its feet which weren’t there. Writhing and heaving, tossing its head about in its wild attempts, not knowing that it no longer had any front legs. I had my revolver with me, but couldn’t get near the animal, which lashed out at us with its hind legs and tossed its head unceasingly. Jerry’s shells were arriving pretty fast – we made some desperate attempts to get the mule so that I could put a bullet behind its ear into the brain, but to no avail. By lingering there, trying to put the creature out of its pain I was risking not only my life but also my companions’. The shelling got more intense – perhaps one would hit the poor thing and put it out of its misery”
The Horror’s that the war inflicted on our beloved horse is simply unimaginable and the suffering they endured is the stuff of nightmares. Even at the end of the war their suffering didn’t stop there! Due to the expense of shipping back to England, the very few horses that did survive, were often sold to French Butchers or sold cheaply to French Farmers.
An awful way to treat such magnificently brave animals, who fought as hard as their human compatriots.
However, a few did have a happy ending, in some cases soldier’s pooled money together to bring their favourite horse’s home and give them a good life after the war.
I will always be eternally grateful for the valiant and selfless War Horse.