War Horse: The Real Story

War Horse: The Real Story is a documentary that was recently broadcast by Channel 4, the UK TV channel. UK residents can download the programme from Channel 4 On Demand until 27 March from this link.

War Horse: The Real Story told the real story of British Army World War I horses. The role of horses in the war has been highlighted by War Horse, the Michael Morpurgo novel made into a successful stage play and a recent Steven Spielberg film. About a million horses served with the British Army during the war; only 2% served with the cavalry, with the vast majority pulling wagons or guns.This was both arduous and dangerous; supply routes were regularly shelled. Around 250,000 British horses were killed in the war; most died from exhaustion, disease or exposure to bad weather rather than enemy action. War Horse: The Real Story talked mostly of horses, but mules and donkeys also served.

One cavalry horse featured was Warrior, the personal mount of General Jack Seely, a Liberal MP who was Secretary of State for War until just before the war. He re-joined the army on the outbreak of war and rose to command the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. On 30 March 1918 Seely and Warrior led the Canadians in a charge at Moreuil Wood. This helped to stop the German Spring Offensive. The story of Warrior and Seely was told by Brough Scott, a racing commentator and former jockey who is Seely’s grandson and wrote a biography of him called Galloper Jack.

Interviews with several veterans, all sadly no longer with us, were included. The close bond between men and horses was clear from the comments of the former soldiers. Military historians featured were Andy Robertshaw, curator of the Royal Logistics Corps Museum and author of several book on World War I and David Kenyon, author of a PhD and a book, Horsemen in No Man’s Land, on British cavalry on the Western Front in World War I.

In 1914 the British army had 26,000 horses. A census of British horses had been conducted over the previous two years, allowing the army to quickly find and buy the extra animals it needed; 140,000 were acquired in two weeks. This had a great impact on businesses and individuals across the country; one interviewee, a child at the time, said that the army took three of the four horses on his family’s farm.

Mark Evans, formerly chief veterinary surgeon of the RSPCA, interviewed Colonel Neil Smith, current Director of the Army Veterinary and Remount Service on the treatment of horses; the British Army still uses horses for ceremonial purposes. The importance of horses during the war was shown by the medical care given to them. Animal hospitals were established and about 2.5 million horses received treatment.

John Singleton’s article on ‘Britain’s Military Use of Horses 1914-1918’, in Past and Present, vol. 193, issue 1 (1993) notes that soldiers had great compassion for their horses and that organisations such as the RSPCA lobbied for animal welfare after the high horse casualties in the Boer War. He argues that the Army treated its animals well because it was more efficient to do so. British animal casualties were proportionately much lower in World War I than in the Boer War.The RSPCA wanted better treatment of animals on compassionate grounds; the War Office did improve the treatment of  its horses, but because it was uneconomic to lose them at the rate of previous wars.

At the end of the war the army had to reduce its number of horses back from 750,000 to the peacetime level of 25,000. Many did not return home; only 60,000 according to the War Horse: The Real Story, whilst Singleton says over 100,000. The programme claimed that 85,000 worn out horses were butchered for meat to feed the French and Belgian populations and German prisoners of war. Singleton says that 45,000 were sold to French horse butchers, with others being butchered by the army itself. The documentary stated that 500,000 British horses were sold in France and Belgium to be used by farmers and local businesses. The numbers given for horses killed, butchered, sold locally, retained and sold at home don’t quite add up to the total who served, but there will be some rounding errors and many officers, like Seely, kept their horses.

Some horses survived the whole war. War Horse: The Real Story and Singleton both relate the story of the black horses of Troop F of the Royal Horse Artillery. They fought from 1914 to 1918, participating in the retreat from Mons, the battles of First and Second Ypres, Festubert, Aubers Ridge, Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Hill 70, Cambrai and the 1918 campaigns. They returned to the Army after the war and pulled the gun carriage that took the body of the Unknown Warrior to Westminster Abbey.

War Horse: The Real Story showed that horses played a vital role in World War I. It the claimed that this was the last war in which such large numbers of horses served and suffered. This is true if it refers to Britain, but large numbers of horses were used on the Eastern Front of World War II. Even the British Army suffered horse casualties as recently as 20 July 1982, when seven animals and 11 soldiers were killed when the IRA set off bombs during military parades in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park.

There is more information on horses and war on the website of the Blue Cross, a British animal charity. Another animal charity, the Brooke, was founded by Dorothy Brooke  to care for working horses, donkeys and mules. She visited Egypt in 1930 and was horrified to see large numbers of emaciated horses on the streets of Cairo and appalled to learn that many were former British Army horses.

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Filed under Reviews, War History

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