The immense contribution of horses during the Great War.
Much-loved Uncle Jack, who had served long and hard in the trenches of the First World War, often talked to me of his experiences – after all, I was also a soldier, in the infantry, so perhaps I might understand just a little of what he’d been through.
One story made a lasting impression on me. He was in the London Rifle Brigade, and one morning in late 1915 they’d gone ‘over the top’, into withering shell and machine gun fire. The attack failed – half of them killed or wounded – and by the evening they were back in the same trench they had started from – exhausted, bitter and disillusioned. Then the Germans started shelling the rear areas, where a large number of horses were tethered. Terrified and injured they bolted, jumping the trenches and careering out into ‘no man’s land’ until trapped and entangled in the terrible barbed wire, screaming with fear and pain. Immediately the soldiers left the safety of their trench and went forward to deal with the horses. “Well” he said, “we just couldn’t leave the poor creatures suffering like that.” What he hadn’t said was that there were wounded men lying out there too, but it took the screams of the horses to get their exhausted bodies back into action.
Over a million horses and mules served Britain in that terrible war, and only 62,000 returned. Yet they were very, very precious. The army had scoured farms and stables across the land for the horses they needed (as in ‘War Horse’), but farms were run almost entirely with horse traction, and the nation desperately needed food, so there were few spare.
One famous (but understandably unpopular) general once said, “I don’t care much about the men; I can replace them, but for God’s sake, look after those horses.”
Everything depended on horses and mules. A single battery of Horse Artillery needed 228 horses to function. Almost all the ammunition, food and supplies arrived at the front in the famous General Service Wagon (and not a few casualties were carried back in them), drawn by two or more long-suffering mules or horses. Keeping these animals fit and well was a major problem – and the Royal Army Veterinary Corps rose magnificently to meet that challenge. Eighty per cent of the injured animals treated by them were able to return to duty.
Like the LRB men, soldiers felt they also had a duty to the horses in return for their patience and hard work. They depended on the animals, the animals depended on them. That reminds me of SPANA and our work today.
One hundred years on and animals are still suffering terribly in present-day conflicts. Our determination at SPANA to reach animals in great need means that we have worked in many of the most brutal war zones in recent years – from Kosovo and Iraq to Afghanistan – and we strive to continue providing help wherever it is needed. This vital assistance is only possible thanks to your kind and unwavering support – a constant for these animals amid the turmoil and uncertainty
– SPANA Chief Executive Jeremy Hulme