Care and Feeding
Winters in northern France were damp and cold. The first winter of the war (1914-1915) men and animals suffered greatly, partly because no war plans had really anticipated that the war would continue that long, and because the winter was unusually cold. Hay and feed were in short supply because British supply channels were not at full wartime footing.
But the winter of 1916-1917 was remembered as the worst, with record-setting cold across northern Europe as well as England. Many animals died of exposure and starvation that winter. The armies were constantly balancing the need to ship food (hay and grain) for animals, food for soldiers, ammunition, vehicles, and all the other materiel of war.
Stable Management Without a Stable: Hay, Grain, Watering, Bedding, and Grooming
"Grooming must be carried out in a workman-like manner with jacket off, sleeves rolled up, and braces down (every mounted soldier must have a belt). Quick, hard grooming, is what is required. A man must put his will and weight into it.”
By 1919, British stable sergeants had made up their minds that real grooming required real men! With the wisdom of the battlefield fresh in their minds, the Veterinary Department prepared a set of notes regarding Horse Management in the Field, with this cogent directive on grooming - including a caution regarding the trooper's own accessories.
Just as an army is said to march on its stomach (a quote so old it is attributed to multiple great generals including Napoleon and Frederick the Great), so the horses and mules of World War 1 also needed adequate food and water to be able to do their work. That they often did not receive these necessities is one of the tragedies of the war.
The predominant reason that horses and mules went without revolved around lack of transportation for food to the battlefield. At times, there were also shortages on the home country end of the supply chain – grain and particularly hay are crops that are very weather dependent. Hay is dried grass and other green plants, while straw is the dried stalks of grain plants, usually wheat, oats, or barley. Hay is green when first dried and ideally stays fairly green in color throughout storage, while straw is pale yellow. Straw weighs significantly less than hay because the stems are hollow and never pack as tightly when baled as does hay.
Grain crops may fail due to lack of rain during the growing season, while hay can fail both for lack of rain and from too much rain at the time of harvest. Once hay is cut, it needs to lie in the field and dry for several days. During that time, it is "tedded" - a process in which the cut hay is turned and new surfaces are exposed to air. Tedding is done using an implement called a tedder (of course....) that, in 1915, was usually pulled by horses. After another day or so it is fairly dry and is raked into rows, again with a horse-drawn implement, and finally, usually a day later, it is baled. If the hay gets wet, or even fails to dry due to a heavy fog or high humidity, it will mold and will be unsuitable for horse feed, although cows can still eat it due to their very sturdy digestion process. But, it could not be shipped to the battlefront for the horses and mules.
Shipping animal feed was not regarded as a secondary or less important priority because the use of animals was completely taken for granted in war. Nonetheless, hay takes up an incredible amount of space (somewhere around 300 cubic feet per ton, depending on how tightly it is baled), and there were only so many ships available. Oats take up less space, perhaps 80 cubic feet per ton, and bran falls in between, at 125 cubic feet per ton.
Feeding, Watering, and Bedding
Both the American and the British armies had standard feed tables based on the type and size of animal. One interesting difference is the inclusion of “chaff” in the British ration tables. Chaff consisted of a 50/50 mixture of hay and straw, chopped into short lengths. Chopped fresh grass or other green growth might also be added to the chaff, which was fed in nose bags or mangers. Chaff was cut using crank-driven machines made for the purpose, or, a machine was not available, a soldier was given the task using any handy wooden block and a chopping blade or heavy knife.
The one thing that has changed in the understanding of equine nutrition in the last 100 years is the relative importance of hay and forage against the importance of grain. It is clear from reading the official directives that grain was considered the more important feed. Indeed, many stable managers still make this mistake. But a good hay, at 14% protein, supplies all the nutrients needed by a horse in all but heavy work, or probably all that is needed by a mule unless in extreme circumstances. The war horses were in hard work much of the time, as were the mules, and certainly needed a grain supplement for energy. And, the hay that they had was probably not always the best – it probably did not provide enough protein, and may also have been lacking in vital minerals and vitamins. Still, the directives seem to regard hay as very much a “second best” feed – a source of roughage but not of much nutrition. That opinion is what has changed.
Another difference that goes along with the use of straw as a feed is that it was forbidden to use it as bedding. With chaff consisting of half straw, half hay, it is clear that there was a belief that straw bedding would be eaten. This certainly does happen at times, but is not a common problem. Bedding during the war was supposed to be sawdust, sand, shavings, heather, bracken, or oat or wheat hulls. It is important to remember that the horses were not housed in box stalls – they had no real opportunity to eat their bedding indiscriminately, because they were tied either to the front of a stall or to a picket line.
In all else, the directives of both the U.S. and British armies would look very much like a well-run stable today. British directives were in existence early in the war. By 1915 it was clear what feed was needed, and an update was issued in 1916:1
In a 1917 update, the realities of wartime shortages became evident:
“Under war conditions it is frequently necessary to make use of whatever is obtainable, and the following may with advantage be given:
- As a substitute for hay. – Oat, wheat, barley, or pea straw, in the form of chaff if possible.
- As a substitute for oat. – Maize, small quantities of barley, linseed cake, linseed, peas, and beans.
- As a laxative diet and to make bulk. – Bran, turnips, beetroot, mangolds [a relative of beets that was commonly grown as animal feed], carrots, green crops, brewers and distillers grains.”2
There was constant attention in the official directives about not wasting any feed. Oat bags and hay bales were to be opened and grain dished up over a tarp to save any of the inevitable spillage. Hay was always to be fed in hay nets, never on the ground where it would be trodden into the mud. The cost to feed an animal in Europe, per day, was $1.57 in 1917 (about $27.68 in 2017 dollars).3 With the expense of keeping animals compounded by the very high cost of shipping, these measures were simply common sense. But, one can imagine that in the pressures of the battleground, they were often ignored. Waste, of supplies, time, and lives, is an inevitable part of war.
The need for adequate water was also addressed, but the animals did not have individual water buckets. Rather, they were led to water troughs “at least three times a day, and in summer four times.”4 Water supplies were usually streams and there was emphasis on not getting silt into the water when pumping it into the troughs. The voice of experience speaks through the pages: “If regular troughs are not forthcoming some substitute should be found. Anything capable of holding water will do, e.g., biscuit and tea tins, ground sheets, and tarpaulins of all kinds, variously supported.”5
Leading hundreds of horses to water at troughs was time consuming and had its own directives, including that an officer should be on duty at the watering place while animals were drinking. “No man should take more than two animals at one time to drink.” “Animals should be watered in batches, a whole batch should be kept at the trough till all have finished and have had their heads up for at least one minute. Every batch will require from five to six minutes actually at the trough.” “Kickers should be watered separately.”6
The officer was present to make sure these practices were adhered to, since animals that were pulled away from the trough too soon, or never got near it because of their stablemates dominance, would sicken within a day. There was also the recognition that drinking water could provide a breeding ground for disease, and the recommendation that each unit should have its own separate trough.
It is easy to imagine how, in the press and difficulties of battlefield life, many of these good practices were compromised. A 1919 edition of the “Notes” adds wisdom gleaned during the years in Europe:
“On the march, mounted officers… must be sent forward to reconnoitre watering possibilities at the next halt, so that watering may be undertaken the moment the unit halts, in the best manner circumstances allow.
“Proper water discipline at troughs is one of the most important items in stable management….” The man leading the horses “must stand between them, and on no account must horses’ heads be tied together.
“Never give the order “Nose bags on for 5 (or 10) minutes.” The proper order is “Quarter (half or full) feed,” and each man must know the time required by his own horse to finish its feed.” 7
British ideas regarding stable management come through with clarity and in amusing ways in the directives regarding grooming. Proper grooming was not only for cleanliness: “The primary object of grooming is to clean the skin and to prevent disease, but the general health is much improved thereby.” When the proper way to groom is described, it becomes clear that it was a way of massaging the sore muscles of the horse or mule, while perhaps causing the same in the groom!
“Once a man has been properly taught, he grooms quickly and well, whilst a badly trained man tires himself and does little to improve his horse.
“….No horse is groomed properly which is not groomed quickly. A good man should groom and clean thoroughly a dirty horse within an hour.
“Use of Body Brush – To use brush with the best result, the man should stand well away, keep his arm stiff and lean the weight of his body on the brush. I the man stands close to his horse, with bent elbow and brushes with his arm only, he does not force the bristles or fibres of the brush through the coat so well or remove the scurf so effectually.
“Use of Curry Comb – the curry comb is for cleansing the body brush of scurf…. Dirt should not be dislodged by blowing scurf out of comb. The contents of comb should be knocked out into squares made on the ground behind horses. This has the advantage of showing at a glance the amount of work the man has accomplished.
“Wisping is really a form of massage…. It stimulates the skin generally and improves circulation. The wisp should be brought down with a bang on the skin in the direction of the hair, and the process repeated all over the body.”8
The ever-present spectre of shortage comes through in the discussion of wisping, however. The wisp was made of hay or straw, which had to be taken from the animal’s ration. That a pound or two of hay could be that precious gives real insight into how difficult the war was. A well-made wisp would last two to three weeks.
Feed Transport and Storage
A horse required ten times as much food as the average soldier. During the First World War there was a distinct lack of grass for them eat on the Western Front or in the deserts of the Middle East. Animal feed, while utterly necessary, sometimes was deferred in favor of other urgently needed supplies. Little forage was locally available in France, especially as the war drew on, because more and more cropland was destroyed by fighting, and the local farmers were still trying to feed their own animals. This meant that horse fodder was the largest commodity shipped to the front by many of the participating nations.
Much ship tonnage was devoted to shipping or (to use the technical army term, “lifting” forage.) In the 1919 War Department Annual Report (published in 1920), the U.S. Chief of Transportation reported on “Forage Lifted (Amount in Short Tons)” – note that a short ton is our American ton, 2000 pounds, as opposed to a British ton, which is 2240 pounds. The total from June 1917 through May 1919 is 821,000 tons, of which about 350,000 tons was hay, 430,000 tons was oats, and 41,000 tons was bran. Contrast this to the total 238,134 tons of gasoline and it is immediately apparent how few vehicles there were in comparison to horses and mules. Forage shipments show a big drop from December 1918 to January 1919, reflecting the end of the war and the U.S. disposing of the animals that were eating so much and were no longer needed.9
Based on General Pershing’s final report, the years 1917 and 1918 saw only occasional shortages of forage for American animals, whether because of better transport priorities, few animals actually under American command until well into 1918, or better growing weather it is not clear.10
The demands on transport meant that feed had to be rationed. British horses ate the best of all the warring nations, while the naval blockade on Germany forced them to supplement their horses feed with sawdust, causing many to starve.11
In the early months of the British fighting, horse and mule management came under significant criticism. It was not that management practices were unknown. The problem was that, in the press of mobilization, men who had no knowledge of horses were put in charge of caring for them. Quartermaster Corps stable sergeants and cavalry officers were spread too thin to oversee animal care, and the animals suffered, became sick, and died at alarming rates, referred to in official correspondence as “wastage.” On further investigation it became clear that the Veterinary Corps was not fully staffed, which meant that the poor practices were not detected early on.
The same thing happened when the U.S. forces came to France. British publications referred to the shocking wastage of American horses, and to the lack of stable management understanding and practice. There were no U.S. veterinary hospitals at all, and to keep the death rate down, the British and French both began taking U.S. animals into their own hospitals. Eventually this stabilized and then reduced the death rate. Proper care and feeding were the underpinnings of keeping animals alive and functioning for the troops.
And the Stable?
It was rare for horses and mules to find themselves in an actual barn near the battle lines. After landing in France, they first went to Remount Depots, huge facilities that functioned as warehouses for the supply of horses. The Depots had barns as well as corrals, pastures, forage sheds, and the other facilities common to the keeping of large animals. But in the battlefield, there was no time to build these structures and animals had to be kept in makeshift quarters.
The most common was a simple picket line, in which a rope was stretched between two posts and the animals were tied at intervals to the rope, which ideally was about three feet off the ground. Some picket lines were simply stretched along the ground itself, with the animals tied at ground level. Both these arrangements let to huge wastage of feed, which was trampled into the mud as quickly as it was distributed. Eventually, hay lines were strung above the picket lines, with hay nets hung at nose level, much reducing waste. Animals kept on picket lines were supposed to be blanketed in wet or cold weather, but this depended on the availability of blankets. The worst problem of picket lines was the footing, or standings, on which the animals stood. The earth quickly became filthy mud mixed with urine and manure and this led to foot and skin problems within days.
"Nothing more distressing could be witnessed than a concentration of transport animals, during wet seasons, in fields where the mud was over their knees and hocks. Horses were wet and cold for months at a time; grooming was out of the question, and where overhead hay-lines were not brought into use, the hay was trampled into the mud. Under these conditions the debilitated horses, which were propped up by the mud, died on their feet."12
To combat these problems all sorts of makeshift quarters were used. The most basic was to tie horses against the side of a hill that had been dug out to form a straight front wall, into which the horses were faced and tied. This provided some shelter from wind, and tarpaulins could be rigged to shelter from rain and provide camouflage against air attacks. If the site was to be used for any length of time, sand or gravel could be brought in to provide proper footing that could be cleaned and would drain.
Even better, though never uniform, would be to find unused buildings. They often were not originally built as animal housing, but if they were roofed they could be made into reasonable stables. Factories, sheds, and other makeshift quarters were used with great success because the animals were protected from weather, and the floor could be bedded and cleaned.
However, the Germans also knew that the Allies would be looking for housing for their animals, and sometimes booby-trapped stables as they retreated. Time bombs were set to go off late in the evening, after everyone had settled in for the night. Concussion bombs were like mines, and exploded when they were stepped on. Both types of bombs were laid under the stable floor, either in the stalls or at the entrance. After experiencing this a few times, potential stabling areas were closely inspected by the Engineer Corps or by the Transport officer himself before the stable was approved for use.13 It can only be imagined how much extra time and anxiety this caused in the already-stressful battle environment.
- Notes on the Feeding, Management and Issue of Army Horses. H.M Stationery Office, London, 1916.
- Notes on Horse Management In the Field. Quartermaster General’s Branch, London, 1917. P. 5.
- Operations of the Quartermaster Corps, U.S. Army During the World War, Report of Remount Service, A.E.F. France, June 28,1919, hereinafter called “Remount Report” para 65???
- Notes on Horse Management 1917, p. 3.
- Notes on Horse Management 1917, p. 2.
- Notes on Horse Management 1917, p. 4.
- Notes on Horse Management in the Field, Prepared by the Veterinary Department for General Staff, War Office. London, 1919, pp. 4-5.
- Notes on Horse Management 1919 p 9-11.
- War Department Annual Reports, 1919, Report of Chief of Transportation Service, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1920, p.4963.
- Annual Reports, 1919, War Department (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1920) p.619
- https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/british-army-horses-during-first-world-war National Army Museum, London.
- Tamblyn, D.S.. The Horse in War. Oakpast, Ltd, 2011. p. 26.
- Ibid, Tamblyn, p. 31.