Backbone of the BEF
They were with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the very start, they were with the BEF at the very end; they served at the front, in the rear and in the support lines; they stumbled through the hell of no-man's land, closely following every British and Commonwealth push. They helped supply their masters by delivering food, water and ammunition, even though they themselves were starved, sodden and spent. They died in their thousands. The light draught horse and mule played a role that is often overlooked by commentators and historians of the Western Front, but without them the British Army's ability to wage war would have been almost impossible. Taken from the fields, cities, factories and coal-pits of Britain, and from the rolling plains of America and Canada, light draught horses and mules were purchased and then shipped into a terrifying world just as unfamiliar to them as it was for their human counterparts.
Animals designated 'light draught' (from a height of 15 hands 2 inches to 16 hands and a weight of up to 1,200 lb) were used to pull light artillery limbers, wagons and ambulances; to carry supplies and munitions; or to perform other important odds and ends – either singularly or in teams. Put simply, they provided the backbone of the Army's logistical support. 'Heavy draught' horses were of a bigger and sturdier type, like the Shire horse. They were teamed together to pull the larger artillery pieces. They were replaced as time went by as the guns of war become larger and required tractors, motor vehicles and even locomotives to haul them.
The light draught horse and mule was used until the very end, the numbers on 'active service' with the BEF in France growing from 25,000 to over 475,000 by autumn 1918. On all fronts and theatres, and across the Empire, a staggering 1 million plus horses and mules were listed in service with British, Commonwealth and Empire forces by the war's end. On the Western Front over 256,000 horses and mules would be killed. The figures could have been worse were it not for the sterling work of the Veterinary Corps. They were given the Royal prefix in recognition of their efforts in 1918.
Baptism of fire
At the start of the conflict, the Remount Service, the organisation charged with securing the army's mules and horses, was expecting a short, sharp conflict (much like everyone else). Yet they still erred on the side of caution and decided to acquire what was considered by some to be an excessive quantity of animals. Their special purchasers raced across the country at the outbreak of war, buying draught animals wherever they could be found and, in the first 12 days, over 165,000 had been acquired for in military service. While the learning curve was steep, and some basic mistakes certainly made, there was patience and proficiency in looking after these beasts of burden. However, it is worth noting the troops and officers involved in these early stages were either professionals or reservists with a good deal of equine experience. The problems of inexperience and the need to educate the men were further down the track.
The British Army was engaged in a series of rapid battles and withdrawals in the first months of the war. Here the draught animals proved their worth time and again, allowing the BEF to remain one step ahead of the German juggernaut and, when the conditions favoured it, to take the fight back to the enemy. But all of this meant that the horses and mules experienced a gruelling time, with many caught in the open trying to deliver desperately-needed munitions and supplies in the face of heavy enemy fire. For example, at the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August, Albert George, an Artillery Sergeant, remembered the bravery of some doomed teams: 'We could see ammunition wagons trying to replenish getting about half-way to the gun, then a couple of shells would burst blowing the drivers and horses to smithereens, it was a terrible sight but the last two days had made us used to it.'
Another artillery man, Gunner J W Palmer, recalled the difficulties in keeping their horses fed and watered during the miserable retreat: 'The position over the rations for both men and horses was rather precarious. These were the days when we went without rations of any kind or water. The horses were more or less starved of water. On the retreat we went to various streams with our buckets, but no sooner had we got the water halfway back to them, then we moved again. We had strong feelings towards our horses. We went into the fields and beat the corn and oats out of the ears and brought them back, but that didn't save them. As the days went on, the horse's belly got more up into the middle of its back, and the cry was frequently down the line, “Saddler – a plate and a punch!” This meant that the saddler had to come along and punch some more holes in the horse's leather girth to keep the saddles on.'
Following the great retreats, holding the line and then the 'race to the sea', the trenches and defence systems that are so well known today began to form. But work for the draught horses and mules continued apace, with all manner of equipment having to be bought up to the battle lines as far as possible and, where the motor trucks could not go, the horse and the mule were used almost exclusively.*
*Although the Poor Bloody Infantry became honorary 'pack animals' on all too many occasions.
Supplying the feed for the animals was a feat in itself. The average ration for the light draught horse during a ‘normal’ spell in France was 12lb of oats, 10lb of hay and some bran for a bran mash at least once a week. D Miller in his pamphlet Horse Management on Active Service published in early 1918 noted what he considered the best feeding procedure: 'Horses want food very early in the morning and as late as possible at night… so put in the nosebags last thing at night 2 and 1/2lb of chaff and make the line sentries put the nose bags on first thing in the morning, say 6 am, and let them have a nibble of chaff... At 7 am water. They will not drink much, but some of them want it: feed with 4lb of oats mixed with a handful of chaff. At 11.30 am water. At 12 pm feed with the same. At 4.30 pm water. At 7 pm give them the remainder of the hay in nets or in the racks. This is done by the line sentries.'
Accommodation for the animals was often rudimentary and, in many cases, a simple picket line sufficed. This was not a problem in fine weather, in winter it was potentially lethal. The BEF compounded the danger at the start with a confused stance on clipping the horse or mule's winter hair, a shaggy coat that keeps them warm and protects them from the elements, but which can also aggravate and disguise various skin disorders and parasitical activity, all of which can become seriously debilitating.
Army vets and those caring for the animals were told to clip as normal, a measure that would have been fine in peacetime when horses and mules could be stabled or, if in the winter paddocks, have rugs thrown over them and then replaced at regular intervals. But in the trying conditions of the Western Front, and with the exposed animals frequently left with sodden rugs, the risk of a horse or mule developing fatal pneumonia became worryingly high. Depressingly, many were lost because of this basic mistake. Still, at least the lesson was learned and, in the years to come, those in charge of horses and mules left most of the winter coat unshorn. Only the legs and bellies were clipped by 1918.
More horses and mules were needed as the British Army grew in size. Having scoured Britain, the Remount Service started to look overseas for replacements and North America was the most obvious place to look. With its vast plains and intensive farming, the rolling lands of the mid-west had produced a light draught horse that was a breed apart from its European ancestors and, more importantly, there were plenty of them. American and, to a lesser extent, Canadian horses and mules eventually made up two thirds of those used by the British Army. Their supply was constant, leaving many, including Sidney Galtrey, to wonder 'how America came to have so many horses available'.
At first sight, these 'Yankees', as Tommy sometimes affectionately called them, were rough and ready looking: they were shoeless, long-haired and had ragged hips. But they were tough as nails, with generations of their kind content to roam in the open and in all kinds of weather. Colour-wise they were mostly black or grey, although there was a fair representation of bays and chestnuts as well. After being brought at large fairs, the American horse or mule would be branded with the British Army's broad arrow symbol and then taken to the nearest railhead for immediate transportation.
But having so many animals together was a medical as well as a logistical problem. Horses were particularly prone to 'shipping fever', a form of pneumonia, and other pulmonary complaints. Mules, on the other hand, were much hardier, although far more obstinate (or perhaps more intelligent). The animals were taken off the trains every 36 hours for watering and feeding at specially-constructed depots. They were also allowed to stretch their legs, which must have been most welcome after being cooped up for such a long period. Casting a close eye over these animals was an army of vets looking for any signs of disease or distress. Every animal had their temperature checked and those not well enough for shipping were taken out of the line to regain their health and await a later departure.
Arriving at the US East Coast docks, the horses and mules were loaded on transport ships heading for Britain. Resting them back to peak condition at this stage would have taken too much time, so the Remount Service decided it was best to simply get the gruelling transatlantic journey over with. Again, any animal looking ill or with a high temperature was taken out of the line. Once on the ships, and after a degree of coaxing, the animals were placed in the stalls and given round-the-clock checks when the voyage started. One has to feel sympathetic for the men having to feed, water and care for the creatures and, after three weeks below decks, the smell must have been terrible.
The animals were unloaded as quickly as possible on arrival in the Britain. The horses were keen to get ashore, while many mules – usually those noted as unwilling to board – were now unwilling to get off! Overall, most of the horses and some of the mules were seedy after the journey and it was the job of the Remount Service and the Veterinary Corps to get the animals fighting-fit. This was soon achieved with decent care and hearty rations. Groomed and well cared for, both 'Yankees' and 'Brits' were placed onto transports and shipped to France. Here the animals were taken to specialised depot on the north coast. By the war's end there were five of these establishments. Carefully checked and passed fit for service, the horses and mules were declared ready for the horrors of war.
As the new and expanded BEF of 1915 and 1916 took shape, many city men, often with no equine experience at all, suddenly found themselves in charge of unfamiliar animals. However, those in command displayed great aptitude in turning these city boys into rustics who got the best results from their animals. This was done through education programmes run by the Veterinary Corps, including a basic ten-day course of lectures for both infantry and artillery transport officers. At its peak, this course was attended by up to 50 officers and 300 NCOs a month. Even with a basic knowledge of disease and veterinary science, horses and mules could now be treated on the spot for minor ailments. The semi-trained eye could also diagnose a more serious case early on, getting the horse or mule sent away for prompt veterinary treatment before illness took hold and caused greater damage. Because of the Veterinary Corps' efforts, a British Army horse or mule taken out of line, had a 78% chance of recovering and returning to active service. Given that modern veterinary science as we know it was still in its infancy, one can only describe this result as extremely impressive.
Another measure taken to ensure the well-being of the draught animals was the appointment of a chief horse-master to every corps. Below him, attached to smaller units, were sub-ordinate horse-masters. These men were experts in horse and stable management, giving invaluable advice and aid. They also weeded out those men either incapable or negligent in caring for their animals. Often it was a man who, no matter how well intentioned, simply lacked a knack for the job in hand. Captain Galtrey wrote of a transport officer who made a particularly amusing bungle. He made a complaint in regards to the quality of the oats his horses received:
‘"What's the matter with the oats?" inquired the ADVS [Assistant Director Veterinary Services].
"Well sir," was the reply, "they are so small; they get into the horses' teeth."
"Ah, well that's bad, very bad. Perhaps you'd better indent on DADOS [Deputy Assistant Director of Ordinance Supply] for some toothpicks"!'*
*Before we laugh too hard, it is worth noting this man went on to win the Military Cross. He is unnamed because Galtrey was writing in wartime.
Most men came to love their horses and mules, and both soldier and animal worked together as a close-knit team on the Western Front. J M Brereton, the author of The Horse in War wrote: 'The soldier came to regard his horse almost as an extension of his being.' This is not misty-eyed romanticism; time and again memoirs lament the sight of dead or dying horses and mules scattered over the killing ground. It was a case, perhaps, of the men accepting a nightmare created by human hands, but feeling that the death of innocent animals was inherently wrong. Signaller Jim Crow, 110th Brigade Royal Field Artillery summed it up: 'We knew what we were there for; them poor devils didn't, did they?'
This sympathy and empathy for the injured, wounded or dying horse and mule was reflected in F Matania's painting Goodbye Old Man, which depicts a Tommy saying farewell to a mortally-wounded horse. Scenes like this occurred time and again, with many men left traumatised and shocked. A passage recounted in Max Arthur's Forgotten Voices is illustrative here. Gunner H Doggett recalled a vivid scene from 1917: 'Our ammunition wagon had only been there a second or two when a shell killed the horse under the driver. We went over to him and tried to unharness the horse and cut the traces away. He just kneeled and watched this horse. A brigadier then came along, a Brass Hat, and tapped this boy on the shoulder and said, "Never mind, sonny!" The driver looked up at him for a second and all of a sudden he said, "Bloody Germans!" Then he pointed his finger and he stood like stone as though he was transfixed. The Brass Hat said to his captain, "All right, take the boy down the line and see that he has two or three days’ rest." Then he turned to our captain and said, "If everyone was like that who loved animals we would be all right."'
Large-scale offensives were always the most dangerous times for a horse and mule with the BEF: they could get caught in murderous artillery fire or riddled with bullets; they could be shot up by marauding aircraft looking for an easy target; they could be worked to breaking point or killed by exposure, having stumbled across putrid ground, breathing in an atmosphere laden with deadly chemicals. The nadir came with the winter of 1916/17 and the subsequent Arras offensives, according to Galtrey. 'The mud was awful and literally engulfed the horses,’ he wrote. ‘There were parts where wheeled traffic could not go, and yet supplies had to be got to their objectives and the guns moved as directed. So loads had to be carried as packs and, in this way, weighed-down, our war-horses and mules were pulled to pieces.' Thousands were lost to 'the strain of service', the 'indescribable' weather and the 'serious curtailment of the oat ration'. With basic rations, and working all day in terrible conditions, the animals were all too easily prone to 'breakdown' – sometimes fatal, sometimes not.
The large-scale loss of horses and mules could lead to a transport crisis. For example, the gunners estimated a shortage of 3,500 draught horses at the end of the major Arras offensives in April 1917. The Royal Regiment of Artillery's 167th Brigade noted in its diary that: 'Many horses died of sheer fatigue.' Gunner Philip Sylvester also remembered the stark horror of this time: 'We moved forward, but the conditions were terrible. The ammunition that had been prepared by our leaders for this great spring offensive had to be brought up with the supplies, over roads which were sometimes up to one's knees in slimy yellow-brown mud. The horses were up to their bellies in mud. We'd put them on a picket line between the wagon wheels at night and they'd be sunk in over their fetlocks the next day. We had to shoot quite a number.'
Exactly the same would happen again and again in the mud-and-blood of Third Ypres. A heart-wrenching account of a draught animal's plight was recorded by Lieutenant R G Dixon, 14th Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery: 'Heaving about in the filthy mud of the road was an unfortunate mule with both of his forelegs shot away. The poor brute, suffering God knows what untold agonies and terrors, was trying desperately to get to its feet which weren't there. Writhing and heaving, tossing its head about in its wild attempts, not knowing that it no longer had any front legs. I had my revolver with me, but couldn't get near the animal, which lashed out at us with its hind legs and tossed its head unceasingly. Jerry's shells were arriving pretty fast – we made some desperate attempts to get the mule so that I could put a bullet behind its ear into the brain, but to no avail. By lingering there, trying to put the creature out of its pain, I was risking not only my life but also my companions'. The shelling got more intense – perhaps one would hit the poor thing and put it out of its misery.'
Care and kindness
Because of the valuable work they performed both at the front and in support lines, the care of horses and mules was given top priority. As noted, disease and fatigue were the main enemies. To combat them, the BEF created large Convalescent Horse Depots, where the animals could be taken for treatment and cure. They were allowed to rest in peaceful fields, a world away from the muddy horrors of the front. Parasitic conditions, such as lice and mange, were treated with special dipping baths. Early identification of the disease Glanders was possible by giving the animals a diagnostic substance called 'Mallein'. If the animal was ill, then a remedy could be quickly administered before the malady took hold. Over 1.5 million doses of Mallein had been dished out in France before the autumn of 1918.
By 1918, the care of horses and mules in the British Army was not only well organised, but envied by all other nations fighting on the Western Front. In the German spring offensives, the German commander General Erich Ludendorff was particularly keen for his armies to capture and then utilise these animals, according to some accounts. Thankfully, it was not to be and, in the heady days of the great Allied counter-attacks, the British Army's horses and mules were there in the thick of the action, bringing up vital supplies and munitions until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
In December 1918, the victorious British Army marched in parade-ground order over the Rhine and into Cologne, directly under the gaze of the defeated Kaiser's statue. Fittingly, horses and mules were there too. Captain T H Westmacott recorded the occasion with pride: 'The horses were all fit and hard as nails, and the buckles of the harnesses were all burnished like silver. The mules were as fit as the horses, and went on wagging their old ears as if they crossed the Rhine every day of the week. A German looking on said that the division must have come fresh from England.' Those animals remaining in the British Army's service were the fittest and the best available, while the 'standard' and 'poor-quality' animals were either auctioned off at rock-bottom prices or sold to French butchers, a terrible fate given the services these brave beasts had performed.
However, there were some happy endings. Four officers clubbed together funds to purchase and then ensure a peaceful retirement for a horse called David. This extraordinary animal was a veteran of the Boer War and then served every day without fail on the Western Front, except for the one occasion he was wounded. Other survivors were a gun team of beautiful black horses. After the War, they were given the honour of transporting Unknown Soldier's coffin to Westminster Abbey. The team, affectionately known as 'The Old Blacks', were finally retired in 1926. Every November 11, we remember the great sacrifice of the men and woman who fought or fell in the Great War. But let us spare a thought too for those 256,000 horses and mules that went as well, never to return. And spare a thought too for the countless thousands sent to slaughter houses after years of misery on the frontlines.