The ultimate war machine
World War One was a war of rapid technological innovation, with aircraft, tanks and poison gas used in battle for the first time. But behind this modern machinery stood the humble horse, providing the backbone to vast logistical operations of armies on both sides.
During the conflict the British Army deployed more than a million horses and mules. There weren't enough horses in Britain to meet demand, so over 1,000 horses a week were shipped from North America, where there was a plentiful supply of half-wild horses on the open plains.
Horses were to prove essential, but they were used in different ways as the war progressed. So what were their roles during the war?
The role of horses
Source: Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During The Great War, 1914-1920
By November 1918, half of the British Army’s horses were in France. The rest were spread across the Balkans, Middle East, Egypt, Italy and the UK. There were four main roles. Supply horses and mules were used to move ammunition, general supplies and ambulances. Riding horses were ridden by soldiers behind, and sometimes even in, the frontline. Teams of gun horses pulled artillery pieces that weighed as much as taxis. Cavalry horses were still used in battle.
Horses in action
World War One was the first conflict where film and portable still cameras were common on the battlefield. They captured footage and stills of horses in action, from their struggles in the mud of the Somme, to teams of horses pulling artillery guns.
The backbone of WW1
The British Army invested immense resources in keeping horses ready for war.
New Zealand gunner Bert Stokes later recalled being told in 1917: ‘to lose a horse was worse than losing a man, because... men were replaceable, while horses weren’t at that stage.’
The British Army provided 2,978,301 tons of oats and 2,460,301 tons of pressed hay as fodder during the conflict.
The average ration of a supply horse was 20lb of fodder, which was a fifth less than recommended. This meant the average battalion needed at least 7,840lb of oats and hay a week to feed its 56 horses. Gun horses were bigger and pulled heavier loads so required at least 30lb of daily fodder. They could spend up to five hours eating a day.
By November 1918, nearly 19,000 men were serving in the Remount Department of the British Army preparing horses to be sent to war across three continents.
Each 1000-man infantry battalion had a transport section of 20 men, who looked after the riding horses, supply horses and supply mules. In the muddy conditions it could take 12 hours to clean the horses and their equipment.
Over 1,300 officers served as veterinary surgeons across all theatres of war. There were also more than 27,000 men serving in the Army Veterinary Corps, who supported the medical treatment of horses.
The British Army Veterinary Corp hospitals in France received 725,000 horses and successfully treated three-quarters of them. A typical horse hospital could treat 2,000 animals at any one time.
On average the British Army lost 15% of its horses every year. Surprisingly, just a quarter of horse deaths were caused by enemy action. The biggest killer was ‘debility’ – a condition caused by exposure to the elements, hunger and illness.
What happened to the horses when war ended?
At the end of the war the British army owned just under 800,000 horses and mules, mostly in France. Working out what to do with them was a major challenge for both the army and the Treasury.
What role do horses play in the army today?
A century on, horses still have a role in the modern armies of the world.
The British Army has 500 horses based in barracks at Hyde Park and Woolwich in London. They take part in ceremonies all year round from the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, to accompanying the coffin at State funerals. For the Army, horses offer a powerful symbol of its military heritage as well as enhancing the standing of the Queen and the nation before an international audience.
In October 2001, a team of U.S. Special Forces were deployed to northern Agfhanistan. Dropped in by helicopter, the only option to navigate the mountainous terrain was to use horses offered by local tribesmen. Working with members of the Afghan Northern Alliance, the combined forces were able to push the Taliban back into Pakistan within weeks.
Soldiers injured in combat may face a long road to physical and psychological recovery. There are centres where they can work with horses to help restore their confidence and sense of leadership. Working with horses has also been found to be an effective therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.