Horses in the Great War

This blog post was written by Joseph Ratcliffe, a volunteer at Stockport Local Heritage Library and Archives.

When we think of the First World War, we tend to think of the immense human sacrifice involved. As a war marked by its technical and mechanical innovations, creating new ways for soldiers to kill and be killed, the result was an enormous death toll, one of the largest of any armed conflict in history. As such, we tend to forget the role animals played, particularly horses. During the Great War, more than a million horses and mules were deployed by the British Army. Many of these animals were killed in the line of duty – either by enemy fire or as a result of the appalling conditions – and their sacrifice should also be remembered and celebrated.

Horses were needed from the very beginning of the war and the number required put a strain on the resources of the British Isles. Before war broke out, the British army only possessed 25,000 horses. In response, many were shipped from abroad, which an article in the Stockport County Borough Express from February 14th, 1915, titled “Army Horses on the Fairground” reveals. “A large number of horses were coming to this country from Canada, and accommodation was required in order to get the horses in condition for sending to the Front”. Horses were used for all sorts of jobs at the Front. They were used for transporting supplies, as ambulances ferrying wounded soldiers to get medical attention, to transport heavy artillery, for riding behind the trenches and even as cavalry, although this tendency mostly disappeared in later years.

Horses used as ambulances and as cavalry.
Horses used as ambulances and as cavalry.

Doing such strenuous work, these horses needed to be in good condition when they arrived at the Front. As such, the horses which arrived in Stockport were allocated “22s. per horse per week” by the War Office. Furthermore, “stabling could be erected on Portwood Fair Ground for 125 horses, and accommodation found in the Cleansing Committee’s stables for another 25”. It is clear from this that horses were deemed important to the war effort and some expense was afforded them to ensure that they were well looked after before they were sent to the Frontline.

Horses and their maintenance remained a priority once they arrived at the Front. The British Army invested considerable resources to ensure they were ready to fulfil their duties: some 2,978,301 tons of oats and 2,460,301 tons of pressed hay as fodder was produced during the conflict and over 1,300 officers serving as veterinary surgeons and more than 27,000 men serving in the Army Veterinary Corps were responsible for the medical treatment of horses.

However, it wasn’t only the Allies who used horses during the war. The Central Powers also relied on horses – in his book The First World War, John Keegan writes that the Germans mobilised 600,000 horses when war began – the extent to which is revealed in the war diary of Annie Dröege, née Drummond, originally from Stockport but who married a German and lived in Germany for the duration of the war. Much like other families, notice was sent that Dröege’s own horse, Moor, “must be in readiness” to be sent to the Front. This caused much consternation amongst the German people, as “it meant that the farmers were without horses, wagons, and men and it was harvest month”. To begin with, only fit and healthy horses were sent, but later on when horses were in short supply, even older horses were called up:

“This morning I was awakened by the noise of many horses in the streets. They were for the front and were principally working horses, for all the good ones went away early in the war. These were left for the farmers to use in the fields but now even these are going… Some of these are poor enough and seem to be aged also.”

This shows the extent that horses were relied upon during the war effort. The impact this had on food production was felt as early as the 3rd of June, 1915, when it was heard by Annie that “if the war lasts two months longer we shall have a famine”. Their absence was felt keenly and left much of the work horses usually did to be done by people. Annie records an instance when she “saw people fetching their coke,” the “six or eight women pulling a cart that ought to have a horse”.

Much like in Britain, considerable effort was made to make sure horses were looked after as well as possible. Annie notes that on 3rd August, 1914, trains were held up for the transport of horses and then again on 18th Jan, 1915, when a second muster of soldiers and horses were called, the result being that “from Monday the whole of the railway is held up for transport of troops and horses… for five days”. Civilians in this instance were seen as less important than the horses. Further evidence of this is shown in Annie’s entry for 9th February, 1915, when a bread ration was introduced, “to make the people eat more potatoes because they fear a famine in corn and they must have what oats there are for the horses”. Horses were valued so highly that the wellbeing of civilians was  regularly compromised. Despite this, Annie felt “so sad for the horses, poor things. They seem so strange in a town and prance about as if afraid”. One can only speculate how horses coped near the Front.

As we can see, horses were a vital element in the British and German war effort and great importance was placed on their care and treatment. In many ways, a horses experience of war would have been very similar to a soldiers. Just like soldiers, these horses, against their will, did their duty at the Frontline and many ultimately lost their lives. As such, their contribution should be recognised.

 

Resources:

Diary of Annie’s War, Annie Dröege, Grosvenor House Publishing, Guildford, 2012.

John Keegan, The First World War.

Stockport County Borough Express, Feb 14th 1915.

The Real War Horse, http://www.history.co.uk/shows/the-real-war-horse/articles/history-of-horses-during-wwi

War Horse and World War 1, http://warhorseandworldwar1.weebly.com/horses-at-war.html

Who Were the Real War Horses of WW1?, http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zp6bjxs

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