The War Horses of World War One


It may come as a surprise to some people that horses were used in such great volumes during the Great War, especially when we normally associate their use with the nineteenth century and earlier, but the truth is that because automobile production had only recently begun to be achieved at a faster rate, it was horses that were heavily relied on, which led to more than one million horses and mules being utilised throughout the war, from riding horses to cavalry.

The British Army invested huge resources in keeping horses prepared and ready for war. New Zealand gunner Bert Stokes remembered being told in 1917 that to lose a horse was worse than losing a man because men were replaceable, while horses weren’t at that stage. The average ration of a supply horse was 20lb of fodder, which was a fifth less than recommended. This meant the average battalion needed at least 7,840lb of oats and hay a week to feed its 56 horses. Gun horses were bigger and pulled heavier loads so required at least 30lb of daily fodder. They could spend up to five hours eating a day.

Over 1,300 officers served as veterinary surgeons across all theatres of war. There were also more than 27,000 men serving in the Army Veterinary Corps, who supported the medical treatment of horses. A typical horse hospital could treat 2,000 animals at any one time. On average, the British Army lost 15% of its horses every year, but only a quarter of these deaths were a result of enemy action. The biggest killer was debility, a condition caused by exposure to the elements, hunger and illness. Horses continue to be used in military forces today, but not on such a large scale, playing roles in ceremonial duties, trekking mountainous terrain and in veteran rehabilitation.