I’ve been lucky enough to have been raised in an equine loving family. I learnt to ride when I was just a toddler and spent much of my childhood caring for horses. For nearly 15 years I had my own – an Appaloosa cross called Gizmo. Appaloosa’s were bred by the Nez Perce people of America in the 18th Century. They were bred for stamina and speed and used by the Nez Perce in their fight against the United States Army in the 1870’s.
Horses have been used as tools in warfare for thousands of years. Since man first broke a horse, he has ridden him into battle – and the Great War was no exception. At the time war broke out when the internal combustion engine was still in its infancy, horses were very much an integral part of every day life. On the Western Front, horses were the only truly reliable form of transportation. The landscape of mud and shell holes was often impassable for motor cars, besides which the British Army owned very few in 1914, so it was horses that were used to supply troops with ammunition, rations and to pull ambulances and heavy artillery. By 1918 the British Army had around half a million horses transporting nearly 100,000 tons of meat and bread to troops each month.
Anyone who has ever owned or spent any extended period of time with horses knows what highly emotional creatures they are. There have been many studies which prove that horses are not just capable of reading people’s facial expressions and mood, but that they remember this information. In short, horses have an emotional memory. Unlike humans, they cannot rationalise their emotions but they do share them – happiness, fear, sadness, animosity and confusion. It is because horses have such a strong emotional memory, that they like people, suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
Many years ago, we had a grey Irish Cob. She was stabled at a livery yard, but being a heavy horse lived out for most of the year. One evening for some unknown reason, she attempted to jump the ditch and wire fencing which separated her field from the adjacent one, but her hoof caught in the fencing and she fell into the ditch. It wasn’t until the morning that she found. It was mid-winter and all night she had struggled in the mud, madly rolling, trying to haul herself out from the ditch, until she gave up and lay exhausted at the bottom. The fire brigade were called and gently they lifted her out and my what a sorry state she was in. Her normally grey coat and long mane were coated thick with mud until she looked like a chestnut. She was bruised and cut, barely able to stand, but it was her eyes which were the saddest thing. Her recovery took months. The physical injuries, muscle sprains etc, healed relatively quickly but she was emotionally scarred. The smallest noise made her rear and shy. Things which she would usually turn a blind eye to were now a point of terror – a fence post, a plastic bag or a rabbit moving in a hedge row. For she had suffered a severe trauma, and she remembered that fear. It infected her mind and took years of love and support for her to regain her confidence. During this recovery the bond she formed with my Mum was immense. There was an emotional partnership, a dependancy and loyalty developed that is difficult to explain. It is through this experience that I often think of the horses on the Western Front.
Many horses underwent basic training to assist with desensitisation before being shipped out to France and Belgium, but that could only prepare them for so much. In the the chaos of a bombardment, the pain of injury and the unpredictable and tormenting noise and movement of the battlefield, a horse and man would share the very same feelings of fear and confusion. Once these moments had past, solider and horse would heal their wounds together – emotional and physical. A gentle pat on the nose, a calming voice in the ear and in turn the knowledge that this innocent creature sees you as perhaps the only source of comfort in an alien landscape and it’s easy to understand the bonds that developed and why many men wept more over the loss of their horses than their friends.
A charity called Our Dumb Friends League was formed in the years preceding the Great War to assist the Army Veterinary Corps with animal casualties in the Balkan War. They provided medical help to horses injured in battle and in 1914 they knew they were needed once again. They displayed flags with blue crosses above their animal hospitals on the front to distinguish help for animal casualties from The Red Cross. Soon, the name The Blue Cross was adopted.
The number of equine casualties during the Great War was huge and The Blue Cross sought help from the British Public to raise money to support the cause. By the end of the War, they had raised nearly £200,000 in donations – the equivalent of nearly £6.5 million today. With this, they were able to extend the numbers of field hospitals and ambulances and treat 1000’s of horses (and dogs), with many surviving and even able to return to their duties.
As part of their fund raising, a book of poems was released. Below, is one of my favourites – The Wounded War Horse by James Rhoades. To me, this poem captures not only the plight of horses during the war but also gives us a glimpse into the connections they formed with the men who cared for them. There are many such poems and books which describe this, ensuring that we don’t underestimate or forget the important role these creatures played, they were not simply a tool of warfare, they were comrades.
Gentle and brave amid the ranks he rode,
And felt the steed beneath him proud and true;
Gentle and brave the steed beneath him strode,
And felt ‘My master’s hand will guide me through.’
And hour on hour, through dying and through dead,
And lashed by rain from heaven, and hail from hell,
From morn to eve, unscathed alike, they sped,
But, at the close of day, the charger fell.
He saw the shattered limb, the heaving breast,
And eyes entreating aid he could not lend,
With kiss on kiss the velvet nozzle pressed,
And longed, yet loathed, its agony to end.
And heedless for a while how trumpet blared,
Or round him roared and flashed the fiery zone,
He, who all day the battle’s worst had dared,
Now dared not brave the bivouac alone.
Then in one sob a fond farewell he spoke,
The loaded death with hand reluctant drew.
Oh! dear dumb friends, so patient of our yoke,
There’s many a heart, ye know not, aches for you.