The role of the horse in World War I
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of Britain's involvement in World War One. About 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed between 1914 and 1918. Read Kim’s blog about the role of the horse in this bloody war and how it changed forever as a result of modern warfare…
The role of the horse in war changed significantly from World War I onwards. Prior to this, the cavalry was regarded as the essential offensive element of a military force, but over the course of the war, the vulnerability of horses to modern machine guns and artillery fire reduced the worth on the battlefield. Despite this horses still played an important part throughout this war.
When war began in 1914 the British army possessed a mere 25,000 horses. The War Office was given the urgent task of sourcing half a million more to go into battle. They were essential to pull heavy guns, to transport weapons and supplies, to carry the wounded and dying to hospital and to mount cavalry charges. In the first year of war the countryside was emptied of shire horses and riding ponies, a heart breaking prospect for farming families who saw their finest and most beloved horses requisitioned by the government. It was a traumatic change for these horses. Transported to the ports, they were hoisted onto ships crossing the Channel before being delivered to the front line.
The military mainly used them for logistical support as they were better than vehicles at travelling through deep mud and over rough terrain. Horses were used for reconnaissance and for carrying messengers as well as pulling artillery, ambulances and supply wagons. The intrinsic value of horses grew to such an extent by 1917 that troops with horses were told that the loss of a horse was of a greater tactical concern than the loss of a human soldier. Allied forces prevented Central Powers, such as Germany, from importing horses to replace those lost and this actually contributed to their defeat.
The presence of horses often increased morale among the soldiers at the front line. Despite the horror and the suffering, the close relationship between the men and their horses shone through. They did their best to care for them in the most testing and tragic conditions. Some men became as close to their horses as they did to their fellow soldiers and any of a horse was felt very deeply. All had their own names, personalities and histories, never to be forgotten.
At the end of the war there was a joyous welcome and reunion for those horses that returned home. It would be the last time the horse would be used on a mass scale in modern warfare.