As November 11th approaches, we will reflect, recall and remember our fallen soldiers. However, as animal lovers we would be remiss not to think of the unsung horse and mule heroes, those who had no choice and were suddenly involved in the unspeakable horrors of war.
Trench warfare, machine guns, trench complexes and barbed wire made cavalry charges all but impossible, and the charge at Mons, in 1914, was the last employed in WWI. Motor vehicles were still unreliable at that time, so horses and mules were needed to pull guns, supplies and weapons to the front lines. Initially, horses were conscripted from families, mines and yards in England and in the first 12 days of war, 165,000 horses were bought. While this seems like a huge number, little did anybody know that this was just the start. As the war went on, thousands more horses from Canada and the United States also entered the fray.
Food, Water, Shelter and Care
Supplies for the horses and fresh water were always a problem. Many died of starvation despite the efforts of their handlers, who often went out into nearby fields and beat corn and oats for fodder; one soldier recalls horses eating their blankets in starvation and choking on the buckles. Desperate efforts to get water from streams and rivers often only helped half the horses as the command to ‘move forward’ was heard. Shelter was nonexistent and while this was fine in good weather, the wet, cold months saw horses up to their fetlocks or worse in mire.
The care of the horses and mules was given priority and those who were in real need of some R and R were sent to Convalescent Home Depots, where they could enjoy the peace and quiet of a grassy field and good food and water for a brief spell. The veterinary care that all horses got was also superb and in 1918, the Veterinary Corps were given the prefix “Royal” in recognition of their extraordinary efforts for the war animals. There was a chief horse master assigned to every corps and they gave expert advice to the troops regarding the care of the horse so that minor issues remained so, parasitic conditions were controlled and diseases like Glanders were treated.
The loyalty that developed between horse, mule and man over the course of the war has led to many stories, poems and pictures that demonstrate the true affection between a soldier and his horse. J.M Breeton who wrote ‘The Horse in War’ summed it up well when we wrote: ‘the solider came to regard his horse almost as an extension of his being.’
Artist Fortunino Matania painted the best selling picture titled ‘Goodbye Old Man’, depicting a soldier saying a sad farewell to his equine partner, clearly moments from death. A poem by Henry Chappell titled a ‘Soldier’s Kiss’ went along with the picture and these were used together to raise awareness of the plight of the war horses.
• 8 million horses and countless donkeys and mules died on all sides fighting on the Western front from exhaustion, starvation, drowning in mud and water, falling in shell holes, being shot and blown up.
• Mules were shown to have incredible stamina in the cold and heat. They played a huge part in the war efforts in Burma, Eritrea and Tunisia. Often their vocal chords were cut to keep them quiet.
• While the better bred horses suffered more from shell shock, the less well bred horses often learned how to lie down and take cover at the sound of fire.
• After the war, some of the best horses were kept by the British Army. Sadly, the ‘standard’ horses were often sold to French butchers for horsemeat or left to a life of hard labour in a foreign land, a terrible fate after serving their country so valiantly.
A Soldier’s Kiss
by Henry Chappell
Only a dying horse! pull off the gear,
And slip the needless bit from frothing jaws,
Drag it aside there, leaving the road way clear,
The battery thunders on with scarce a pause.
Prone by the shell-swept highway there it lies
With quivering limbs, as fast the life-tide fails,
Dark films are closing o’er the faithful eyes
That mutely plead for aid where none avails.
Onward the battery rolls, but one there speeds
Needlessly of comrades voice or bursting shell,
Back to the wounded friend who lonely bleeds
Beside the stony highway where he fell.
Only a dying horse! he swiftly kneels,
Lifts the limp head and hears the shivering sigh
Kisses his friend, while down his cheek there steals
Sweet pity’s tear, “Goodbye old man, Goodbye”.
No honours wait him, medal, badge or star,
Though scarce could war a kindlier deed unfold;
He bears within his breast, more precious far
Beyond the gift of kings, a heart of gold.
An animal war memorial opened in Hyde Park, England in 2004. Read about it and about some of the amazing animals who were true heroes of the war. At the same site check out Jilly Cooper’s moving book ‘Animals in War’, published by Corgi.