Horses have served man since time began. Offering transportation, load carrying and leading our soldiers into battle. These strong, brave beasts were used heavily during the First World War and here we take a look at the role they played in this massive global conflict.
When war broke out in 1914, the two sides Germany and Britain had massive numbers of cavalry, in the region of 100,000 men each. On this scale, you can imagine the number of horses that were employed by both sides. In the British Army, the cavalry was viewed as one of the senior regiments with cavalry officers holding high up jobs in the military.
There was one major cavalry charge towards the beginning of the war at Mons in 1914 but this method proved difficult in what was to become trench warfare. The advent of the machine gun, trenches and the use of barbed wire made cavalry charges almost impossible. The British did launch a further cavalry charge at the Germans towards the end of the war in 1918 but sadly, of the 150 horses, only 4 lived.
Horses provided more use than just cavalry charges though and were an essential method of transport and carrying supplies to the front. Mechanised vehicles were still very new, in short supply and unreliable by breaking down whereas horses and mules were in good supply and reliable. We should pay tribute to the sheer number of horses who perished during their war services. More than 8 million horses met their end in the arena of war.
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Did you know that such was the demand for horses during the conflict that Britain had to ship over 1000 horses a week from North America to keep up with demand? The horses were used for cavalry, as gun horses, for supply chains or for riding purposes. Supply mules and horses moved general supplies and ammunition as well as providing an ambulance service. Riding horses were ridden by soldiers behind and in the frontline of fighting. Gun horses had to be strong as they pulled artillery equipment that weighed a huge amount and cavalry horses were used in battle.
Such was their importance that a soldier was once told in 1917 that to lose a horse is worse than losing a man. Men were replaceable but not horses at that time. Preparing these horses for battle was a huge undertaking in itself. There was a whole department for preparing the horses to be sent across to the war effort happening in three continents. Every battalion had its own section of around 20 men whose job was to look after the horses, which was no easy task in all the mud.
There were also thousands of men who served in the Army Veterinary Corps and over a thousand officers who acted as veterinary surgeons. There were horse hospitals which could treat up to 2000 horses at any one time and the Army really did it’s care of horses very seriously indeed.