Horses and WW1
Horses in the First World War
Eight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died in the First World War. When war began in 1914 the British army possessed a mere 25,000. The urgent task of sourcing half a million more became the responsibility of the War Office. During the first year of the war the British countryside was virtually emptied of horses, from the heavy draft horses such as the Shire through to the lighter riding ponies. Crucial to agriculture at the time, the impact of having their finest and beloved horses requisitioned by the Government was immense on farming families.
The horses were transported to the ports where they were hoisted onto ships to cross the Channel. On arrival in France they would soon be confronted by the horrors of the front line either as cavalry horses or as beasts of burden. Many of the men, grooms, infantrymen, cavalrymen and others formed close bonds with the horses in their charge, but they could do little to prevent the appallingly high death rate due to shelling, front-line charges and exhaustion.
In 1914 the British Army owned only 80 motor vehicles so the dependence on horses for transporting goods and supplies was significant. The conditions on the Western Front were so appalling they were totally unsuitable for motor vehicles.
The demand for horses was so great due to the heavy losses, between 1914 and 1917 in the United States a 1,000 horses a day were loaded on to ships bound for Europe. With the horses being so vital to the war effort there were constant threats of naval attacks and even attempts at poisoning of horses before even embarking on the journey. A lot of the horses were taken from the North American plains and many were half wild.
Horses were also shipped from New Zealand, South Africa, India, Spain and Portugal. In addition, a large number of mules were also purchased from the USA. Prized for their amazing stamina, they endured the terrible conditions on the front-line far better than the horse.
With so many horses crowded into tight spaces on the ships the rampant spread of disease became a major problem. These horses were particularly susceptible to a type of pneumonia. Even those that weren’t ill weren’t necessarily in good shape when they finally landed.
Horses aged three to twelve years old were trained as rapidly as possible by soldiers called ‘roughriders’. When they were ready the horses were formed into squadrons and sent to the Western Front.
However the majority of the horses were not used on the battlefield. In 1918 just over 75,000 were allocated to the cavalry, while nearly 450,000 horses and mules were used to lug supplies around. Another 90,000 were charged with carrying guns and heavy artillery, and over 100,000 were horses that were ridden around the front lines, carrying food and ammunition to soldiers and bearing the wounded across the trenches to hospitals.
In 1918 the British army alone had almost 500,000 horses distributing 34,000 tons of meat and 45,000 tons of bread each month. Since the animals themselves also needed feeding and watering they would also distributed some 16,000 tons of forage.
The RSPCA and the Royal Army Veterinary Corps did all they could to treat injured horses and to avoid unnecessary suffering. Their vulnerability to shelling and machine gun fire meant that most horses met a tragic fate and the losses were appallingly high.
The food ration for a horse was 20 lbs of grain a day. This was nearly 25% less than what a horse would usually be fed. Finding enough food for the horses and mules was a constant problem. The horses were always hungry and where often seen trying to eat wagon wheels. When grain was in short supply, the horses and mules had to be fed on sawdust cake.