A Day On the Battlefield
Despite reading many descriptions of the battlefield, of shipping, training, feeding, horse care, and the war in general, it is hard to imagine what an average day might have been like for the animals and their soldier companions.
This section of the website tries to fill that gap, both with first-person accounts and, at the bottom of the page, two pieces (an essay and a poem) with more of an imaginary look into what the soldiers thought the animals might be experiencing - probably also reflective of what the soldiers themselves were feeling!
In his book Officer and Temporary Gentleman, Lieutenant Dennis Wheatley described an aerial bombing attack on the Western Front in December 1915.
""When the bombs had ceased falling we went over to see what damage had been done. I saw my first dead man twisted up beneath a wagon where he had evidently tried to take shelter; but we had not sustained many human casualties. The horses were another matter. They were dead ones lying all over the place and score of others were floundering and screaming with broken legs, terrible neck wounds or their entrails hanging out. We went back for our pistols and spent the next hour putting the poor, seriously injured brutes out of their misery by shooting them through the head. To do this we had to wade ankle deep through blood and guts. That night we lost over 100 horses."
There are many photos of horses in World War 1. What is most amazing to any horse lover is that there are any in which the horses look anything other than terrified. Yet, there are such photos – many of them. Perhaps it is true for horses, as for men, that war is 90% boredom interspersed with 10% terror.
One observer noted that horses did not seem to fear shelling but were clearly fearful of bombing.1 This could well be because shelling was nearly constant in some sectors, and the horses encountered it daily. There was incessant noise of guns but, unless an individual horse was injured, there was no actual pain. Thus, the animal would become accustomed to the sound but not associate it with pain. If injured, it would not realize that the injury was associated with the sound of shelling, which after all went on constantly. Bombing was different in that it was an infrequent occurrence, by no means constant, and if close enough for the animal to notice, was accompanied by a loud sudden noise, shrapnel and debris flying through the air, and a high chance of injury or at least being hit by flying objects. Thus, bombs would be associated in the horse’s mind with injury and they would react with fright.
All horses (and mules), upon first arriving in France, were taken to Remount Depots. These were huge stabling compounds that served the same function as warehouses served for supplies; from the depots, horses and mules were assigned to battle units, which “drew” them as they would any other item of supply. In the case of animals for the British forces, they came by ship across the English Channel, having first landed in England and gone through a training and conditioning period there. The trip across the Channel took less than a day and those animals might go into battle the following day. Horses for the U.S. forces (the AEF) were shipped direct to France from the U.S., and underwent training and recovery from the journey after they got to France. This would be at least a week and ideally longer, but under the pressures of war, it is unclear if all the animals were given this amount of time.
There are a few first-person accounts of the war that give a glimpse of how horses were used and treated. One of the best is by Charles Bassett, a private in the British army who served in France from 1915 to 1917 and recorded his time in a diary, later published under the title Horses Were More Valuable Than Men. Though not a horseman before the war, he was assigned to a Transport unit and for the rest of his time in France, cared for horses and delivered supplies with them. His laconic descriptions of shelling bespeak a man who will not suffer from shell shock; in fact, he had no long-term mental or physical disabilities from the war, despite being wounded badly enough to be invalided back to England in 1917.
Here he describes a daytime supply run:
“On more than one occasion showers of shells whistled over our heads on to the church behind us, showing up another disadvantage of transport work. Down went the rations into the road as the carrying party dived for the trench at the side of the road, but the driver had to stand at the heads of his plunging horses and take his chance, The risk of NOT doing so was illustrated one night, when a six-horsed RE wagon came tearing along the road toward the line, the driver having left his frightened horses, and taken shelter.”2
He describes “standings,” that is the footing for stabling or picketing the horses, as being hock-deep in mud until an enterprising officer took over an old factory for some of the horses, housed others in old barns, and still others in abandoned cottages. Men were billeted a few at a time in whatever attics, lofts, or abandoned buildings could be found.
Here he remembers a summer march in July 1916 before one of the longest and most deadly battles of the war, the Battle of the Somme:
“Day after day we marched back, sometimes a long and weary way, next day only a few miles. At first, probably owing to faulty staff work, the march was made under the full glare of the midsummer sun, but there were so many casualties (and several deaths) from sunstroke on the first two days that afterward we stared at dawn, or before and finished before midday. Of course this meant that if the battalion had a three o’clock reveille for a four o’clock start, reveille for the transport section would be at least an hour earlier. Not only had we to feed the horses as well as ourselves, but arrange four teams for the cookers, two for water-carts, and then the mess-cart and medical cart horses which had to get away to different parts of the village for their vehicles……
“Arriving at our destination, the transport would turn into a field and unharness, get posts driven into the ground, and tether the horses to a line stretched between; or sometimes the line would be simply tied to the limbers. A grooming followed, and then water and feed for the horses, and by that time the men were able to look after themselves.” 3
But this somewhat idyllic trek was followed by participation in the battle itself, still as a part of the Transport unit:
“Rations were taken to High Wood and Bazentin-le-Petit. Once on the road at the bottom of the valley, the fun began. It was a case of going two yards forward, and wait. The congestion of traffic was enormous and the going terrible; double teams were used for the limbers, and owing to this one of our fellows had his leg broken by a kick from a touchy little mare in the lead team. The poor chap had to be dragged from his saddle and taken to the dressing station in a wheelbarrow. After an hour or so we got as far as “Windy Corner,” quite three-quarters of a mile on our journey. These cross-roads got their name from the fact that they were continually being shrapnelled, and one never knew if one would get across all right…. Just beyond this, field guns located in the shell-holes were firing continuously, and a short while after, the site of High Wood was marked by a few splintered poles in a desolate waste….
“Threading our way along the shell-holes, the ground (except that actually occupied by horse or man), is littered with German stick-bombs, and dud shells, and sprinkled with graves….In the wood, one crawls under, or climbs over, the shattered trees, here and there a body still hangs caught in the branches. …Telephone wires sag in loops from the higher branches, or form tripwires for the unwary….. For water we go to Mametz where rows of huge canvas troughs have been erected. Queues of horses waiting for water extend in all directions, and on several occasions we saw dead horses being dragged away with ropes, although we did not experience any shelling while we were there.” 4
When not delivering food rations or ammunition to the front lines at night, the animals and their human crew were kept busy behind the lines getting the mail from nearby rail depots, delivering food to canteens that served the rear forces, hauling coal, pulling water carts, and fetching beer (not for drinking during battle, but liberally consumed after hours.)
Bassett’s relaxed outlook perhaps reaches its height in this account of supply delivery:
“…we…took rations to the ill-starred Menin road. This gave us good training as circus drivers, for from Menin Cross-Roads to Hooge craters we went at a gallop, steering a way through dead horses and mules on the road, in varying states of decease. At each of these animals our own would shy violently. We arrived at the craters, and hastily threw the rations off, whether the men from the line were there or not, and came back at a gallop again. On one occasion we did this between blazing timbers on each side of the road, which had been set on fire by incendiary shells. Quite like a real war this was.” 5
Another writer who give us a picture of the conditions on the Western Front is D.S. Tamblyn, writing about a Canadian division but representative of all allied forces. Here he describes movements during the Battle of Passchendaele:
“Passchendaele was certainly one of the most trying battles in which our horses and mules took part, the terrain over which the travelled can only be described as a quagmire. The earth was so disturbed with shell fire that its appearance was that of a sponge. The rains added to the difficulty of traversing it, so much so that practically at every step they would sink to their knees in liquid mud. Horses became mired to such an extent that is was a case of being humane to destroy them, for it was impossible to extricate any horse without risking three or more, and rather than leave horses and mules in such a predicament, they were destroyed, thus preventing them from becoming wounded through shell fire, and lying in agony for hours.”
“The return of pack animals and their leaders from the forward areas was a sight never to be forgotten. Horses and men, plastered with mud from head to foot, some exhibiting evidence of having received first aid treatment, others bearing ghastly wounds, and the carcasses of dead animals being used as stepping stones by the men to bring their charges and themselves out of the mire to more solid ground, made an awful picture.”
“Shrapnel and bombs were bursting here, there and everywhere; horses neighing, and men bidding the last farewell to their dumb pals, who probably had been their chums since the commencement of the war, made matters worse and more unbearable.” 6
The British “Officer’s Handbook” included a three-point instruction on shooting a horse humanely in the battlefield. 7
When shells bearing gas attacks were observed heading toward picket lines, “the animals were cut loose and driven from the shelled areas, and when Fritz had decided he had done all the damage that could be done, the shelling would cease. The animals would then be returned to their lines, providing, of course, no shells had dropped within the actual lines, as contact with the ground where a mustard gas shell had exploded would be serious for any animal. The least touch of mustard gas on the body of an animal would produce a blister, which, when severe, let to sloughing of the skin.” 10 For more on poison gas and its impact on horses, click here.
Horses clearly could distinguish between the sound of enemy aircraft and friendly ones; the former were of course the only ones that dropped bombs and caused panic. Keen observers of equine behavior could use this to warn themselves of the approach of enemy aircraft before human ears could detect it, let alone determine whether friend or foe.
Horses faced other risks that could only happen on a chaotic battlefield. One was the prevalence of nails in the ground. These came from the crates and other wooden articles that were then broken up or burned in cook fires, the nails then being dumped with the ashes. There was an awareness campaign started, boxes were hung on fences so that nails could be collected, and men were sent out to patrol the ground for nails and sharp pieces of metal that could injure a horse if stepped on. Still, there were as many as four hundred horses a week with nail punctures.11
With names like Blackie, Bundle, Topsy, and Robin; Grey, Bonnie, Pop, Sunny Jack, and Rufus, these horses were not grand animals, but were known as individuals to the men who worked with them. Charles Bassett notes some with their names, comings, and goings:
- Margate (mule): cast at Les Brebis, unmanageable
- Bess: shot at Les Brebis
- Florrie: a pack pony, cast at Gouy, too old to work
- Calonne: drawn at Calonne in place of Florrie
- Joshua: drawn from Remounts
- Nelson: one-eyed heavy hunter drawn from Remounts, who had to be broken to harness
- Tuny: died at Delanote Farm
- Bonny: Cast owning to picked up nail in hoof
- Onions: wounded at Dickenbusch, cast
- Cuthbert: died of exhaustion at Belgian Battery Corner
- Grenadier: went with Col. Warrender to Staff billet
- Prop: cast as useless and too weak for transport work, but given a light job at Reninghelst12
And on and on and on. Millions of horses from all sides, only a few hundred ever to return home. All individuals, all suffering in body and often in mind, hopefully taking some comfort from those around them, both equine and human, and for the humans, often treasured as fellow travelers in the grind of wartime life.