Veteran’s Day is a time to remember those who have fought for our country and our freedom. And this should definitely include equines. Before motor transport, they were the only way soldiers could cover ground quickly, and they gave armies an edge when they were fighting those on foot.
During World War 1, motor transport was new, and horses were still the main mode of transporting material and soldiers.
What many do not realize is that 8 million equines (horses, donkeys and mules) were killed during the war.
Simon Butler is the author of The War Horses: The Tragic Fate of a Million Horses in the Frist World War, an amazing book that draws on over 200 photographs and eye-witness accounts to illustrate the actuality of war and the vital role played by the horse on the Western Front. You can purchase his book here.
He explained to iHeartHorses.com why horses were so instrumental for the war effort:
“In 1914 motor transport was in its infancy and horses were essential in transporting materiel in support of the fighting on both the Allied and German sides. Thousands of tons per day of munitions, food etc. were moved up to the trenches daily – exposing the men and animals to great danger. The war certainly could not have been fought in the same way without them but it must also be remembered that horse transport was at that time the principal means of moving heavy goods over short to medium distances – so horses and wagons were readily available for use by the military. And up to that date armies had always relied on horse transport.”
Many of these horses used were not military bred and trained. In fact, many were family or farm owned horses that were requisitioned by the army. Why? Because from the outbreak of the war in England in August 1914 the military did not have enough horses of their own, explained Butler.
In his book, he has some amazing firsthand accounts, including the following he shared with us, a story as told by a young village girl, Elizabeth Owen:
“Then we heard that the khaki men were coming to take away all the horses from the village. Everything in the village was done by horses. The station was about a mile or a mile and a half away and the train was met by a brake drawn by horses. The milk was delivered by horses and the butter used to be collected from the farms and brought in by horses to the butter market. There was a farmer who had a lovely pair who we called the prancers. He thought he would try and hide these horses but the khaki men found them. They tied them all together on a long rope, I think there was about twenty – all horses we used to know and love and feed. Then they started trotting them out of the village and as they went out of sight we were all terribly sad.”
And it wasn’t just the soldiers that suffered during the war. Another story he shared was on from the Western Front itself, where a General describes the plight of horses:
“The sombre close of the Battle of the Somme was cruel to horses no less than men. The roads were so completely broken up by alternate frost, snow and rain, that the only way to get ammunition to the forward batteries was to carry it up in panniers slung on horses. Often these poor beasts, who were led forward in long strings with three shells on each side of them, would sink deep into the mud. Sometimes, in spite of all their struggles, they could not extricate themselves, and died where they fell.”
The men often grew close bonds with these animals that were helping make their job a little bit easier. A memoir by Gunner, H. Doggett, writing in 1917 and shared by Butler says this:
“Our ammunition wagon had only been there a second or two when a shell killed the horse under the driver. We went over to him and tried to unharness the horse and cut the traces away. He just kneeled and watched this horse.
A brigadier then came along, a brass hat, and tapped this boy on the shoulder and said, ‘Never mind, sonny!’ The driver looked up at him for a second and all of a sudden he said, ‘Bloody Germans!’ Then he pointed his finger and he stood like stone as though he was transfixed.
The Brass Hat said to his captain, ‘All right, take the boy down the line and see that he has two or three days rest.’ Then he turned to our captain and said, ‘If everyone was like that who loved animals we would be all right.’”
And so, while we honor those who have fought for us this November 11, take a moment to think about these forgotten 8 million – who were most definitely heroes.