THE FORGOTTEN WAR HORSE
by Catherine Sampson
(originally published in HorseTalk magazine)
The tired eyes of the sentinel sitting atop his weary warhorse, peer downward in utter fatigue. The long march to Mons in the peeping light of dawn breaks the forbidding blackness of night. The horse paws impatiently, clawing away at the pungent ankle deep mud with his hoof that has plague them throughout the many months. The gnawing creek of the saddle mixed with the soft snort and jingle of buckles and bits from tossing equine heads, is the only sound traveling through the still air, rank with rotting corpses and carcasses. The noticeable absence of songbirds announcing a new day is an unwelcome sadness in the deadly silence that reflects war.
Without complaint the courageous strained army of horses and mules endured the Great War of 1914 to 1918 with little recognition for their loyalty, toil and suffering. Of the twenty million animal casualties of this war, everything from dogs to pigeons, it is estimated that more than eight million horses perished on the battlefields and killing grounds during this dark period of human history. Their demise was largely due to the modern invention of the machine gun that cut them down unmercifully. As an example of this efficient weapon of destruction, the British lead a cavalry charge against the Germans who responded with machine gun fire, killing all but four horses out of 150 bold chargers. Exploding rounds of mortars, maiming barbed wire, starvation, mange, and parasite infestation, were all contributing factors of injury and death. Exhaustion and disease such as the still incurable Grass Sickness which largely affected the predominately Clydesdale breed in Scotland with bouts of colic, difficulty swallowing, rapid weight loss and steaming mucus, claimed many victims.
Great numbers of horses crossed the ocean to join the war effort. As much as one-third of some seafaring horses died of colic and pneumonia while on route to Britain and Europe. Medical intervention was a primary concern with these large shipments of horses. Round-the-clock checking of vitals with emphasis on body temperature, helped keep everyone involved with their care, abreast of pending health complaints. Three weeks on a transport ship with many horses and mules housed in stalls below deck was indeed stressful for both caretaker and equine. The stench alone must have been unbearable as ammonia levels reached peak volumes, contaminating the already stale and vile air.
Canada, Mexico and the United States supplied thousands of remounts for pack, saddle and draft. An example of the terrible loss of these exported horses was the additional 182,000 horses sent to the battle lines by the American Expeditionary Force. Sixty thousand were killed and a mere 200 horses crossed back over the Atlantic at the end of the war. The war had seriously depleted all horse stocks around the world, claiming some of the finest horseflesh of its time. Generations of “blue blood” stock would be lost.
To add insult to injury, unwanted warhorses were auctioned off at rock-bottom prices and many sold to French butchers or ended up as pet food. In Australia, a riding horse reaching the ‘cast’ age (selected for disposal), of 12 years was destined for destruction, while gun wagon horses were cast at age 15. Today, these horses would be considered in their prime, but the terrible conditions and rudimentary veterinary care by today’s standards, aged these horses much before their time.
Still the heroes of these braved equines, was the Veterinary Corps and those who truly loved and learned to care for their mounts. The veterinarian played an immense important role in the survival rate of horses and mules. Seventy-eight percent returned to active duty thanks to the dedicated Veterinary Corp who treated them. Two and a half million horses were treated in veterinary hospitals on the Western Front alone, approximately two million recovering sufficiently to return to useful duty. In one year alone, the British veterinary hospitals cared for 120,000 horses treating a malady of wounds and diseases. An important vehicle for transport was the motorized horse ambulance. It transported many injured horses to safety and critical treatment.
At the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ontario, a memorial cross hangs on the south wall of the MacNabb room, honouring the OVC graduates who died in the line of duty, serving their country and the many horses that were their patients during the war.
Conditions in the field were deplorable. Mother nature was unkind. Stinking sucking mud sapped the strength of many a gun-carrier horse. A catch-22 problem arose when, with the best interested of the horse in controlling mange and other fungal skin problems, horses were clipped of their winter hair. Many of them succumbed to exposure that first winter. A decision to clip only the limbs of the horse was wisely adopted after this mistaken directive was halted.
Horses engaged in warfare were shell-shocked and virtual wrecks. The thunder of artillery and exploding bombs and air rife with machine gun fire, terrorized both man and beast. Still the horses carried on with valour, answering the urgent call of the infantry.
Episodes of frank humour were rare. A baptismal into equine care and custody was at the ready for many soldiers unaccustomed to horses and more in tune with city life. Such was the lesson of a young transport officer complaining to his commanding officer about the quality of oats his horse was receiving. “What’s the matter with the oats?” inquired the Captain. “Well sir, they are so small that they get into the horses’ teeth,” replied the transport officer. The commanding officer replied, “Ah, well that’s bad, very bad. Perhaps you’d better indent on DAADS (Deputy Assistant Director of Ordinance Supply) for some toothpicks!” The transport officer soon developed a keen interest in horsemanship and was later awarded the Military Cross.
Loss of a horse became for many a very personal part of their identity. The horses were literally an extension of themselves. When a horse lay wounded or died, the grieving process would have to wait. It seemed so unfair to abandon a faithful comrade in choice of life and duty.
Dietary needs of the horse, was often a challenge and in some campaigns, horse went without food or water for sixty hours while carrying a load of close to 127 kilograms. A normal feeding regiment went as follows: nosebags on with 2.5 lbs. of chaff at 6 a.m., water at 7 a.m. and feed with 4 lbs. of oats with a handful of chaff, water at 11:30 a.m., feed at noon, water at 4:30 p.m. and feed hay at 7 p.m. On average, light draft horses received 12 lbs. of oats and 10 lbs. of hay daily with a bran mash added to the diet once per week. This would have been an ideal routine, but as so often in war, schedules are interrupted. You made due with what you had and made time for feeding wherever possible. Desperately needed supply lines might not make it through enemy lines or become delayed with the mire and muck. Starvation was a real and viable threat.
The horse furniture was minimal for the mounted infantry. It comprised of a simple brown leather headstall, bridle, saddle and reins. Other crude appointments included spare horseshoes, picketing rope, surcingle strap and pad, brush, feedbag and corn bag. Two brown leather wallets for personal items were carried on either side of the pommel accompanied by spare boots and a tent made of heavy canvass. The ‘British Warm’ coat was strapped to the back of the cantle. An additional thirty rounds of ammunition decorated the horse’s neck in the form of a bandoleer. The riffle and sword rounded out the troops weapons.
At the end of the war, a few horses were remembered and recognized for their contributions and those of their species who struggled and died so that we would retain the freedom we enjoy today. Special notations were made for Sandy, the only horse to come home to Australia after active service in WW1. The 16-hand chestnut would later return to Australia at the request of his late owner, Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges were he would live out his remaining days.
David was another honouree. After having served and survived the South African war, he returned to active duty in WW1 as a wheeler in the battle at Mons and others. His long service would have compared equally with his human counterpart being awarded both the Queen and Kings’ medals, 1914 Star medal, and the British and Victory medal. He also fulfilled all of the requirements entitling him to the Long Service and Conduct medal.
Finally, an excerpt from a poem by F.B. Adler titled Thirty Years Later, sums up his respect and longing for the warhorse of yesterday as he writes,
“Yes, You’ve learned “the ways of the dead machine that is groomed with oily rags;
You know no more the pride we felt atop our well groomed nags.”