How Horses Played a Surprisingly Central Role in World War One

Alex Browne

3 mins

17 Oct 2018

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 in World War One and without horses the logistics of each army would have ground to a halt.

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Equine logistics

As well as being ridden by soldiers, horses were responsible for moving supplies, ammunition, artillery and the wounded. The Germans even had horse-drawn field kitchens.

The supplies being moved around were extremely heavy loads and demanded a lot of animals; a single gun could require six to 12 horses to move it.

The movement of artillery was particularly important because if there were not enough horses, or they were ill or hungry, it 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.

The huge numbers of horses required was a difficult demand to meet for both sides.

A British QF 13 pounder field gun of the Royal Horse Artillery, towed by six horses. The photo caption in the New York Tribune read, “Going into action and hitting only the highest spots, British artillery speeding along in pursuit of the fleeing foe on the Western front”. Credit: New York Tribune / Commons.

The British responded to a domestic shortfall by importing American and New Zealand horses. As many as 1 million came from America and 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.

This 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 often exploited in recruitment propaganda.

Unfortunately, they also presented a health hazard by exacerbating the already unsanitary conditions of the trenches.

A”Chargers” water horses at a stationary hospital near Rouen during World War One. Credit: Wellcome Trust / Commons

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.

Only about a quarter of these deaths occurred in battle, whereas the remainder resulted from sickness, hunger and exhaustion.

Horse fodder was the single largest import to Europe during the war but there still wasn’t enough coming in. A British supply horse’s ration was just 20 pounds of fodder – a fifth less than the amount recommended by vets.

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Britain’s Army Veterinary Corps comprised 27,000 men, including 1,300 veterinary surgeons. Over the course of the war the corps’ hospitals in France received 725,000 horses, with 75 per cent of them treated successfully.

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.”

Each year the British lost 15 per cent of their horses. Losses afflicted all sides and by the end of the war the animal shortage was severe.