A tribute to the faithful war horses and their human comrades.

Horses in Great war, war horses

It is obvious from official war diary writings that the men depended on the war horses as much as the horses depended on them.

I feel as though I have a vague connection to the war horses of the Great War as I have discovered that my maternal grandfather Edwin was a ‘Driver‘ in the Canadian Artillery responsible for ‘driving’ and looking after a team of six horses which pulled each 18-pounder field gun.

As a driver Edwin was  also responsible for attempting to keep them fit and well under terrible conditions. It was dangerous work as he and the horses had to pull the guns into the front line, unharness horses and then take them back to relative safety a 1,000 yards to the rear where he looked after all their needs under shell fire.

Despite all that the soldiers were going through the war horses were obviously loved and treated as comrades

He served in the same unit, the 4th. Division, 13th. Battery CFA throughout the war and the original War Diaries written up each evening by an officer of his Battery gave incredible descriptions and insights into the battles, the shelling, the casualties they suffered, the long marches and the conditions under which they fought.

What soon jumped out of the pages and gladdened me was that not only did they write about the state of the men and what they endured, but the diaries constantly mentioned their beloved horses and how they were suffering. It was obvious from the writings that it was generally believed by the men that they depended on the horses as much as the horses depended on them. They were in it together and just as the horses and mules did their utmost to help the troops the men reciprocated by doing all they could to ease their hardships. It is well known that the men formed strong bonds with their equine comrades.

Horses and mules were treated with affection

First World War mule and her handler.
“She is very stupid but I love her” – a soldier wrote this on the back of the photograph. Credit: National Museum of Scotland.

More horses and mules died of disease and exposure than from battle injuries and often it must have been impossible to give them adequate care. This is borne out by an officer who had to censor letters before they were sent, described how the men wrote home to their wives, girlfriends and mothers and gave examples of the care they took:

“Drivers often almost wept as they wrote of their faithful friends – the horses – wishing so much that they could be given more feed and better shelter. Such care and attention they gave these dumb animals. When nothing else was available an old sock was used to rub them down or to bandage a cracked heel, while breast collar and girth galls were eased by wrapping light articles around the harness to keep it from rubbing against the sore spot.”

It would seem that the men often ignored orders when it was detrimental to the horses’ welfare and on one occasion it is noted that following a long train journey the horses were unloaded and the drivers were ordered not to water them as there wasn’t time before a long march to the front. They ignored the order and watered and fed them anyway.

War horse, First world war, horse suffering
Soldiers were keen to do as much as they could for their horses’ welfare under terrible conditions. Credit Imperial War Museum.

Even the generals seemed to have affection and concern for them and found time to bring some humaneness among the horrors as hinted at in this extract about a General visiting the front in mid-winter:

“Our horses are in bad shape, but we are up to strength in guns. General Panet visited the Battery on the 11th. in the snow and saw horses wallowing in deep mud and immediately ordered them back to the lines declaring they were not to do more work for a few days”.

Even when issuing written orders thought was always given to ways of lessening the load and hardship of the horses and mules:

“There is a long march before any halt. It will therefore be necessary for Officers commanding batteries to pay the most scrupulous attention to every detail in connection with their horses. Riding on vehicles will be systemised [take turns] and the numbers riding thereon kept as low as possible. Guns and ammunition wagons are not to be loaded with unauthorised articles and throughout the march the condition of the horses must be ever in mind.”

War horse treated for wounds

It was common practice to bomb the areas where the horses were kept

One officer lamented in the War Diary that “the road to the wagon lines is strewn with dead horses” and the the snowy and cold weather was having an effect on the horses”.  An insight into the terror caused to the horses is aptly described in this extract:

“the duty of the ‘stable pickets’ was an unenviable one, especially at night, when horse lines were being bombed or shelled. Quite apart from the danger of the explosions, there was always the chance of the picket ropes breaking and the horses stampeding. Horses frequently fought and kicked, becoming entangled in ropes and had to be followed and caught in the darkness”.

It was common practice to bomb the areas where the horses were kept as both sides realised the vital importance of them and my grandfather was badly wounded in such an attack. His 13th. Battery had just set up wagon-lines a few miles from the town of Raillencourt and were feeding the horses when the pilot of a plane literally dropped a load of bombs right onto the horses and men killing one driver and wounding nine other men including Edwin as well as wounding and killing many horses.

The scene was described as “chaotic with shrieks from both men and horses” particularly as the bombs had been a newly invented stick bomb that exploded a few inches from the ground throwing splinters of shrapnel all around. The shrapnel hit my grandfather in the upper thigh and he was taken back to England by ship for a month’s stay in hospital and luckily he didn’t have to return as the war ended.

War horse, war horse cruelty
More horses and mules died from disease, exhaustion and exposure than from enemy action.

For all the bad news it would appear that Christmas 1917 was a far happier time for the war horses in my grandfather’s Battery:

“The weather became colder and a light blanket of snow covered the ground. For the first time proper shelters were built for the horses, standings being laid with brick and soft stone from the ruins nearby, while iron sheeting was to serve as roofing and walls. Our horses soon showed the benefit of these precautions and by the constant care, losses and disease throughout the winter were practically nil”.

It is impossible for me to visualise or comprehend the carnage and horrors my grandfather must have witnessed to both humans and horses as it is the stuff of nightmares, but I like to think that my grandfather was a humane man and did all that he could to ease the suffering of the horses in his care. I also like to think that it was possibly  through him that I developed my soft spot for horses.

I wrote a book In remembrance of all the horses and men who suffered or perished in the Great War. orer a copy now:

ISBN: 978-1094956763 RRP. £10.99 150 pages 40 b&w photographs

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Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.