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 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.

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 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.


Suitable for horse lovers and military hist0rians of all ages

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

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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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The need to inspect and licence small animal charities.

Alarmingly and amazingly, anyone, regardless of experience or ability, can set up an animal rescue enterprise in the UK.

Puppy, behind wire, mournful
Indiscriminate breeding of animals needs to stop.

Over the last couple of decades there has been a proliferation of smaller charities and private organisations operating rescue re-homing centres and sanctuaries all working to their own agendas, often founded by well-meaning people, disappointed by the perceived ineffectiveness of the long-established larger national charities which they accuse of squandering money on staffing and administration costs.

The problems with small animal re-homing charities and sanctuaries

Most have an ethos of accepting any animal offered to them to ‘save’ as many as possible regardless of whether they have the proper facilities, staffing or finance to look after them adequately.

Many of these charities often go under through lack of volunteers or finance and the owners fail to seek help soon enough causing horrendous suffering, starvation and death by their “saviours”. It is a common problem the world over. Recent examples include a rescue on the island of Malaga where a hundred starving dogs were found and a horse rescue in Queensland, Australia was raided by Police who found dozens of starving horses.

Horse, thin, animal cruelty, horse cruelty
It’s not just dogs and cats that can suffer in failed rescue centres, but horses and other animals as well.

In the UK, alarmingly and amazingly, anyone, regardless of experience or ability, can set up such an enterprise. They are totally unregulated with no controls, inspections or licensing involved and this can and does result in animals that are supposedly being saved from substandard care and euthanasia being kept in similar or worse conditions. 

These rescues often become overrun with animals.

They are often one-man-bands operating on a shoe-string from the backyards or premises of the founders with few volunteers and back-up. Some begin through a form of hoarding whereby a person starts by rescuing a few dogs or cats and then decides it would be fun to turn it into a rescue or sanctuary not realising the implications, cost and responsibilities involved.

These centres are often in a position of becoming overrun with breeds that are the craze of the moment and of having to find homes for them as quickly as possible. This can lead to less stringent rules and policies on the suitability of new owners and animals can sometimes be given to owners that are questionable.

When we give money and support these smaller independently run animal charities we do not seem to investigate how well operated the charity is, what its aims are, its achievements and its expertise. Unless we are a volunteer or live locally to the charity we do not even make a visit. We are normally satisfied by the cute pictures they publish and the literature they produce. If they say they are saving animals, we are happy.

Many who trumpet that all their donated money goes to the animals often struggle to survive as they have no reserves to weather periods when donations dry up and find themselves unable to provide adequately for those in their care. This is particularly so with sanctuaries which keep them for life without attempting to find them new owners. The numbers build up to a point where the premises become overloaded and out of control with the helpers unable to give suitable housing and adequate care.

The Charity Commission has no remit to concern itself with welfare.

It often reaches a state where visitors or volunteers find themselves forced to report them to the authorities, which if they are a registered charity, is the Charity Commission. Unfortunately, the Commission are neither interested or have the powers to intervene when it involves welfare issues, only in monetary and trustee contraventions. Although local authorities and the police can intervene on welfare matters, the Commission is quick to pass the buck to the RSPCA.

This is highlighted by a recent case in 2017 involving the Capricorn Animal rescue where the Commission investigation report states:

“The [Charity] Commission is aware that the charity has been the subject of concerns from members of the public relating to the welfare of animals in the charity’s care; this does not fall within the Commission’s remit and concerns on this matter should be directed to the RSPCA.”

Placing the burden on yet another charity to investigate a similar charity is not an acceptable course of action particularly when the RSPCA is constantly accused of misuse of power and involving itself in legal matters which are perceived beyond their remit.

When other charities fail it is difficult to find other facilities for the animals. This burden normally falls on the major charities who are the only ones who have the means and logistics to step in, but this obviously places a burden onto them.

The new “Lucy” Law could encourage illicit animal rescues.

The new “Lucy law” which will ban the breeding and sale of puppies and kittens except from licensed breeders and animal charities could still leave an opening for unscrupulous traders.   The clamp down may cause a ‘shortage’ of available puppies and kittens which could increase the number of imported animals from foreign lands and encourage the setting up of pseudo rescue organisations.This has happened in the USA with imported rescue dogs.

With so many animal re-homing charities springing up, the control, regulation and inspection of these premises is an issue which urgently requires Government action before it gets totally out of control. Benefactors should also take a long hard look before donating and always be extremely careful to satisfy themselves of the soundness of the organisation.