Horses in World War I
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Horses in World War I

World War I was a turning point for the horse on the battlefield. It was also a time when a horse in war suffered greatly due to modern warfare.

With the recent release of the 2011 drama film War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg, the horse and its involvement in World War 1 has become of interest and reflection to many people around the world. While the horse on the battlefield in the pages of history is nothing new, it was World War 1 which became the turning point for the horse’s major involvement in warfare.


All the major combatants in World War 1 began the conflict with Cavalry forces. The Central Powers stopped using horses on the Western Front soon after the war began, although they were used in a limited fashion on the Eastern Front well into the war. On the Allied side horses were used by the United Kingdom extensively during the war, although for only a short time by the United States. Horses which were not used by the Cavalry still played a significant role throughout the war with reconnaissance, carrying messengers, pulling artillery, ambulances and supply wagons.


The modern machine gun, artillery fire and poisonous gas all played a part in reducing the utility of the Cavalry on the battlefields. The conditions for horses were severe at the front. They were killed by artillery fire, suffered skin disorders and injured by poisonous gas. Obtaining equine food was difficult and Germany lost many horses due to starvation. Water for drinking was often scarce and the English cavalry officer, Lieutenant Colonel RMP Preston DSO, reported the horses being watered on an average of once every 36 hours.

Even with many horses dying from exhaustion, drowning, becoming mired in mud and falling into shell holes, disease was another factor; equine influenza, ringworm, sand colic, sores from fly bites, and anthrax were among the illnesses suffered. Veterinary hospitals were established to assist horses in recovering from battle wounds and shell shock, but the roads of the Western Front were still lined with thousands of horses. Horse trailers were first developed for use on the Western Front as equine ambulances, and British Army Veterinary Corps hospitals treated 725,216 horses alone, during the war.


Hundreds of thousands of horses died, and many more were treated at veterinary hospitals and then sent back to the front. In his research, Michael Morpurgo, author of the 1982 children's novel War Horse, arrived at an overall figure of 10 million horse deaths on all sides. At the end of the war many horses were killed due to age or illness, while the younger ones were sold to the locals or slaughterhouses. Many were not able to return to their homelands due to quarantine restrictions.

Of the million horses that were sent from the UK, only 62,000 returned. Of the 136,000 Australian horses sent to the war, only one named Sandy returned, although there were 13,000 remaining at the end of the war. Two thousand were designated to be killed, and the remaining 11,000 were sold and taken to India as remounts for the British army. New Zealand horses were also left behind, and those not required by the British or Egyptian armies were shot to prevent maltreatment by other purchasers.


Many memorials have been erected to the service of the horse in World War 1 including, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, which bears the inscription; ‘Most obediently and often most painfully they died – faithful unto death.’’.


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Comments (8)

Very interesting share and well-written, too. Thanks for posting...voted.

I learned a lot from your well composed article of facts. The only thing I think soothes the fact that so many horses were killed is that perhaps their deaths prevented a human death. Thank you for your information which I read with great interest.

Ranked #80 in History

How sad, used, abused, then tossed aside or killed... such a pity.

Christine Ramsay

A very well written article, Janette. I do feel sorry for all the poor horses had to put up with during wars but they were a great asset.

Ranked #63 in History

Thank you all for your comments. I agree, it is a sad article but it was - war! I wrote about it as a way of honouring these noble creatures.

Ranked #44 in History

A nice follow-up to you Australian War Horse article.

So sad, I guess everyone and everything are affected by war. Horses? They didn't occurred to my mind. Interesting topic here.

jill kelly

So very sad, It is difficult enough to think of mans inhumanity to man, let alone innocent animals...When are people going to learn that war solves nothing?