Welcome to the launch of our exciting new series of guest blogs! These elandlodge.com blogs will feature expert guest authors exploring a range of equestrian & countryside topics which you may not normally get to hear about.
As we approach the Centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (28th June 2019), which formally ended the hostilities between Germany and the Allied forces, we thought it would be fitting for our first blog to celebrate the huge contribution of our horses to World War One.
As horse owners and enthusiasts, we fully appreciate just how special the horse human relationship can be. In this blog, our guest author Jane Flynn explores the historical importance of the relationship in the context of the conflict.
On 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. The British Army of 1914 was the most mechanised of all the army’s involved, but it still needed horses – and this demand only increased as the War progressed. When war was declared, the British Army immediately set about mobilising its equine resources. In just two weeks, its horse strength was increased from 19,000 to 53,000. By August the following year this number had reached 540,000; a figure that does not include horses supplied to replace those killed, destroyed, or sold.
To begin with horses were purchased within the United Kingdom. In 1912, a census had been conducted to identify where suitable horses would be found on mobilisation. A good supply of horses had always been provided by the railway, tram and omnibus companies, who took advantage of the Horse Registration Scheme. Owners were paid a small amount per horse registered each year, on the understanding that it would be made available if needed. A great deal can happen in two years, however, and not all of these horses were still suitable, or even still living, by 1914.
The horse purchasers travelled the country buying horses compulsorily according to quotas. The census had shown where heavy draught horses were most likely to be found, and similarly riding horses, light-draughts for artillery and transport work, and officers’ mounts. Many owners gave up their horses voluntarily, but a great many did not, and the purchasers had to use ‘a degree of discretion’ when approaching owners. The purchasers were not allowed to target any one owner in the area, or to enter their stables without permission. As can be imagined, the whole process was fraught with potential for distress and anger. Owners whose horses were necessary for their business, such as farmers and tradespeople, were allowed to appeal. Nonetheless, many owners resented their best horses being taken, and many grieved their loss.
Horses were used to supply ammunition to the Artillery’s guns, and to haul the guns themselves. Packhorses carried water, rations and equipment over terrain impassable to motor vehicles. Sappers and engineers used horses when they laid telegraph cables, constructed bridges and repaired roads. The cavalry reconnoitred, harried the enemy and supported the Infantry when the Army was on the move. Horses were used intensively by every branch of the Army and to move every conceivable item too heavy or cumbersome to be moved by man alone. It has been said that nothing moved during The Great War ‘that did not have a horse attached’ and, while this may have been a slight exaggeration, it is certainly the case that the War could not have been waged without them.
As the War progressed the purchasers increasingly looked to the global market. By the end of the War just below 470,000 horses had been purchased within the United Kingdom alone, but this was as nothing when compared to the far greater numbers brought to supply the war effort from overseas. The United States of America supplied just under 689,000 horses and mules, but horses were also drawn from Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, China and Argentina. We must also remember the many thousands that accompanied the Australian and New Zealand forces to Egypt, and those that arrived in France with the Indian divisions of the British Army. This command of the world’s horse supply was to prove a decisive factor in the conflict’s eventual outcome. Sir John Moore, who had been Director of Veterinary Services during The War, believed it to have been ‘a weapon in the hands of the Allies that went a long way towards the fall of the enemy.’