“We always think of modern wars as being ‘mechanised’ but in fact the scale of animal use during both world wars was unprecedented. Never before have so many animals been mobilised for military service – unless we recognise this, we fail to understand how modern wars were actually fought,” Gervase Phillips, Principal Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, told FEI.org.
Phillips said the greatest single demand was probably for gun-teams to haul artillery pieces. North American mules and North American light draught horses proved especially useful to the British in this role and tens of thousands were brought across the Atlantic.
Throughout the conflict, the British Army deployed more than a million horses and mules, though there weren’t enough horses in Britain to meet demand, so over 1,000 horses a week were shipped from North America.
A French veterinary report claims that 30 per cent of animals used by the French army were imported (mainly horses, perhaps some mules), a total of about 525,000, with "a few tens of thousands" from Argentina and the rest from the US - perhaps 485,000, lacking any more accurate data.
It would be roughly accurate to say that about 1,325,000 American horses and mules were used in the war.
Gervase highlighted the major impact of having access to, or lack thereof, horses and mules led to the war’s end, with Germany drastically short of horses by 1918.
He said: “They dismounted their cavalry not because it was necessarily useless (in Eastern Europe it was clearly very useful) but because the artillery needed the horses more. When the German spring offensives of 1918 ruptured the Allied front lines in France and Belgium, they were unable to exploit their breakthroughs because they had no mobile forces, ie cavalry.
“In contrast, both the French and British had retained mounted cavalry and these proved very useful in spring 1918, plugging gaps in the line, moving fast across country with all their equipment, usually dismounting to actually fight, but sometimes actually charging, like the Canadian cavalry at Moreuil Wood, 30th March 1918.”
Gervase points to the poor conditions and tough works that horses and mules endured throughout World War I.
“War is always tough on horse and mules,” he said. “Overwork, exposure to the elements, lack of grooming, poor rations were the reality of life for many military horses. In some instances, conditions had improved; the British for example provided far better veterinary care to their horse during WW1 than they had during the South African War (1899-1902).
“However, mistakes were still made. In late 1916, the horses and mules coats were fully clipped out, to combat mange, but the winter of 16-17 was unusually severe and thousand then died of exposure. Really there was no way to mitigate the horrors of war for horse, but it’s worth noting that both the RSPCA and the Blue Cross also did what they could to alleviate suffering, providing qualified personnel and veterinary care.”
Individual horses have been remembered, such as the famous war horse Warrior, dubbed "the horse the Germans could not kill" being presented with the Honorary PDSA Dickin Medal posthumously.
Kasztanka was another famous horse that belonged to Polish war hero Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Her name means chestnut in Polish, a fact that attributes to her colour. She had been owned by Ludwik Popiel, and came under the ownership of Pilsudski in 1914. She carried her master in many battles of Polish Legions at the side of Austro-Hungary and Germany during the First World War.
Meanwhile, only one horse out of more than 136,000 “walers” (the general name applied to Australian horses abroad) made it back to Australia - Sandy, who belonged to Major General Sir William Bridges.