Remembering the war horses & the men who cared for them.

They fought together, rested and ate together and ultimately died together.

It is that time of year when we remember the fallen in wars, particularly those in the Great War. Last year, being the 100th. anniversary of the armistice, I was prompted to try and discover more about the role one of my grandfathers played in the war. His name was Edwin Clark and I was only four years old when he died so knew little about him. I soon discovered that he had a full on war in the Canadian Field Artillery and it came as a pleasant surprise to find that he had the dangerous job of a “driver” looking after and riding the war horses that pulled the guns.

I gathered so much information that I decided to write a book about his eventful personal war. But during my research I was so intrigued with the men’s obvious emotional relationship with their horses, the story became as much about the heroics and deprivations of the horses as the men.

The men spent most of their waking hours caring for them often under almost impossible conditions. They fought together, rested and ate together, often slept together and ultimately died together. There is no getting away from the fact that their lives were unforgiving and unremitting, but at the same time the men responsible for them lavished as much care as they could to alleviate their suffering and formed incredible bonds with them.

war horses of world war one
She is very stupid but I love her – a soldier wrote this on the back of the photograph. Credit: National Museum of Scotland.

The men were devoted to the war horses.

The horses and mules became friends, confidants, fellow comrades and pseudo counsellors with who the men could air their grievances, discuss their suffering and help alleviate their depression and melancholy. Without their companionship the physical and mental well-being of the men would have been worse than it was. The relationship is probably one of the ultimate examples of man’s dependence on animals for solace.

Their devotion to the horses is evident by how an officer responsible for censoring their letters home to mothers, wives and girlfriends stated:

“Drivers 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 were eased by wrapping light articles around the harness to keep it from rubbing the sore spot”.

Legitimate targets

The horses and mules were viewed as legitimate targets by both sides. They faced being shelled, bombed, gassed, sometimes shot and suffered horrific shrapnel injuries. Many suffered shell shock and remarkably others learned to lie down and take cover when under fire.  Like most of the human recruits, the horses had never experienced such noise, chaos, smells, violence and hardships and they did not have the capacity to realise what was happening to them or likely to happen to them. So everything occurring around them was terrifying until they became accustomed to it.

There are no exact statistics on the average lifespan of a World War One horse arriving at the front, but for most of them it was very short. They died in large numbers daily and were replaced by new recruits. Very few managed to survive the whole war. The few that did manage to see it through to the end were shown no compassion and were just slaughtered for meat or sold to work on farms, being logistically too difficult and expensive to repatriate. Their suffering was immense and unlike the men, none of them returned home.

I find it rather poignant that when Edwin, my grandfather was severely wounded for the third time and invalided from the war, just four weeks before it ended, he was tending to the horses. He was giving them their nightly feed, water and grooming a mile behind the front line when an enemy plane flew over and dropped a bombs in the midst of them killing and wounding many drivers and horses. Edwin did thankfully make it back, but after three years continuous action in most of the major battles on the western front he returned both physically and mentally scarred. We owe them all so much.

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Extract From Book

They docked at the port of Le Havre at dawn and disembarked in a heavy drizzle. Edwin and the other drivers were ordered to remove the horses from their cramped stalls. Unloading restless and frightened horses was a long, tedious and dangerous operation and once on dry land they had to be fed and watered. Then Edwin and his comrades had their breakfast. Edwin had arrived in France, safe and sound, four months after arriving in England, fully trained to meet the enemy at the western front. And meeting the enemy was going to come sooner than probably any of them expected as they were ordered to head straight for Belgium and the bitter fighting in the trenches.

They hooked up their teams and were given the order to “walk march” through the streets of Le Havre to a huge rest camp on the outskirts consisting of rows of huts and tents and field kitchens. It was noted in the WD that a very unlucky Sergeant Gailer was killed during the train journey when he fell out of an open door of a carriage – their first casualty of their war in France. They had lunch, groomed the horses and cleaned the harnesses, but had little chance to rest as they were on the move again and ordered to march to Le Havre railway station. Horses, guns, forage and equipment had to be loaded again with eight horses per freight car – 4 horses at each end with heads facing the centre and the men lounging between them. The guns were roped down and transported on flat carriages. They were on their way to the front in a hurry and I can only imagine how nervous Edwin must have been. They were to face an arduous train journey and long marches over several days to reach their destination in Belgium.

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

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

My grandfather Edwin Clark was a ‘Driver‘ in the Canadian Field Artillery who sat on one of the six horses pulling the 18-pounder field guns and was responsible for looking their welfare. It was dangerous work as he and the horses had to pull the guns into the front line, unharness them 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:

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