Although the cavalry charges deemed essential in 1914 were an anachronism by 1918, the role of the horse did not diminish during World War One. Despite its reputation as the first ‘modern war’, motor vehicles were far from ubiquitous and without horses the logistics of the war would have ground to a halt.
As well as being ridden by soldiers, horses were responsible for moving supplies, ammunition, artillery and even the wounded in horse ambulances. The Germans even had horse-drawn field kitchens. These were extremely heavy loads and demanded a lot of animals; a single gun could require 6 to 12 horses to move it.
The movement of artillery was particularly important as if there were not enough horses or they were ill or hungry this could affect an army’s ability to position its guns correctly in time for battle, with a knock on effect on the men participating in the attack.
Obtaining Horses for War
The huge numbers of horses required was a difficult demand to meet for both sides. The British responded to a domestic shortfall by importing American and New Zealand horses with as many as 1,000,000 coming from America. The expenditure of Britain’s Remount Department reached £67.5 million.
Germany had a more organised system before the war and had sponsored horse-breeding programmes in preparation. German horses were registered annually with the government in much the same way as army reservists.
Unlike the Allies, however, the Central Powers were unable to import horses from overseas and so during the course of the war they developed an acute horse shortage which contributed to their defeat by paralysing artillery battalions and supply lines.
Health Issues and Casualties
The presence of horses was believed to have a good effect on morale as men bonded with the animals — a fact exploited in recruitment propaganda. Unfortunately, they also presented a health hazard by exacerbating the already unsanitary conditions of the trenches. It was hard to prevent disease spreading in the trenches, and horse manure did not help matters since it provided a breeding ground for disease-carrying insects.
Like the men of World War One, horses suffered heavy casualties. The British Army alone recorded 484,000 horses killed in the war. About a quarter of these deaths were in battle the remainder resulted from sickness, hunger and exhaustion.
A British supply horse’s ration was 20lb of fodder, which was a fifth less than recommended by vets. Despite this, horse fodder was the single largest import to Europe during the war.
Britain’s Army Veterinary Corps comprised 27,000 men, including 1,300 veterinary surgeons. In the course of the war the British Army Veterinary Corp hospitals in France received 725,000 horses and 75% of them were treated successfully.
Each year the British lost 15% of their horses. Losses afflicted all sides and by the end of the war the animal shortage was severe. New Zealander Bert Stokes recalled that in 1917 ‘to lose a horse was worse than losing a man because after all, men were replaceable while horses weren’t at that stage.’
Horses weren’t the only animals to see action in World War One. You can read more about the dogs, birds and elephants of the war in Vital Roles of Animals in World War One.