NO CHOICE” ….
the words inscribed on the Animals in War Memorial at Hyde Park in London.
This is certainly a true statement for the more than eight million horses and
countless mules and donkeys that died during the First World War on both sides
of the conflict – either felled in battle, or succumbing to exhaustion, starvation,
One has to wonder where all these
unfortunate equines came from – after all, at the start of the war in 1914 the
British army apparently possessed only 25,000. Since the Calvary was a
vital force when the war got underway, and horses were also required for
logistical support as beasts of burden to ferry guns, ammunition, ambulances
and supplies, the War Office set to work to requisition as many as possible.
The British countryside was
gradually denuded of horses of all breeds, from heavy drafts to hunters and
eventually even children's ponies – all sent across the Channel to face the
horror of war.
Horses started dying almost
immediately. Just 19 days into the war a British cavalry regiment charged a
German infantry and gun placement at Elouges on the French/Belgian border,
losing 250 men and 300 horses.
Heavy equine losses became appallingly routine and
the demand for replacement animals was great throughout the war. Horses were
shipped in from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, Spain and
Portugal, and many thousands of horses and mules were bought from the USA (some
of them wild straight from the American plains), bound for the Western Front.
Feeding and caring for hundreds
of thousands of horses on the front was a logistical nightmare. If you’ve got
one horse, imagine the requirements for thousands in the muddy, cold, violent
conditions of the battlefields!
The official rations for British
horses were 12 pounds of oats, 10 pounds of hay and some bran every week. Many
didn’t receive their share, and were constantly hungry, out in the open in the
cold and wet, suffering with lice and mange, skin disease, and respiratory
The Royal Army Veterinarian Corps did what it could,
and there is little doubt that the soldiers and their four-footed comrades
shared a close and caring bond.For many
horribly injured or diseased war horses sadly the only treatment was
The British Army Veterinary Corps
hospitals treated 725,216 horses over the course of the war, successfully
healing 529,064. Sadly, many of those that survived did not make it home at the
end of the war, when the priority was repatriating men rather than animals. A
great deal were sold to local slaughterhouses or residents; many of the aged
and infirm were simply shot; while others were sent off to serve in the British
Army in India and Egypt.
Today, more than 100 years after
the end of the First World War, we still commemorate the sacrifice made by so
many serving soldiers, civilians and, especially, horses. Turns out it wasn’t
the “war to end all wars” as was hoped at the time, but it was, thankfully, the
last time that horses were used so cruelly in such large numbers to fight man’s
We’d like to share with you this
heartbreaking poem, written by Henry Chappell, believed to have been inspired
by the famous painting, “Goodbye Old Man”, painted by Fortunino Matania for the
Blue Cross Fund in 1916.
THE SOLDIER’S KISS
Only a dying horse! Pull off the
And slip the needless bit from
Drag it aside there, leave the
roadway clear –
The battery thunders on with
scarce a pause.
Prone by the shell-swept highway
there it lies
With quivering limbs, as fast the
life tide fails,
Dark films are closing o’er the faithful eyes
That mutely plead for aid where
Onward the battery roll, but one
Heedless of comrade’s voice or
Back to the wounded friend who
Beside the stony highway where it fell.
Only a dying horse!
He swiftly kneels,
Lifts the limp head and hears the
Kisses his friend, while down his
cheek there steals Sweet pity’s tear;
“Goodbye old man, goodbye.”
No honours wait him, Medal, Badge
Though scarce could war a
kindlier deed unfold,
He bears within his breast; more
Beyond the gift of kings, a heart