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Purchasing & Shipping

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Buying Thousands

In 1914-1918, despite efforts to mechanize the army, animals still provided more reliable and versatile power than motorized vehicles. It was said, and without exaggeration, that nearly anything that moved during the war had a horse or a mule hitched to it!
Hundreds of thousands of animals were purchased in the U.S. and shipped to Europe in the four years between 1914 and 1918.

Click to read more about Purchasing, Where They Came From, and Shipping


Where They Came From

In both the U.S. and Great Britain, horses still were seen in city streets in 1914, but they had begun to be replaced by motorized vehicles, including passenger busses and cars. Still, in Great Britain in 1911, slightly fewer than 50% of horses lived on farms and only 35% of the 2,600,600 working horses were used for farming.1

The situation in the U.S. was somewhat different, with a total horse population estimated at some 30 million, of which eight million were broken and trained, and the majority of animals lived and worked on farms across the country but with the largest numbers concentrated in the mid-western agricultural belt.

British war plans for obtaining horses at the outbreak of the war had been based on a system of annual payments to horse owners who had agreed to maintain horses fit for military service, that could be provided within days and at a set price if needed. The call-up of these animals was referred to as “impressment,” and it worked as planned – except for the fact that no plans had ever foreseen the scale of the war that unfolded in 1914. Within weeks after the war started, all the horses that were available in England and Ireland for impressment had been turned over to the army – and everyone could see that far more were going to be needed very soon.

The demand for army horses had never been a significant part of the overall horse industry in Great Britain, and if there was a large and sudden increase in army needs, the domestic market could not support it. At least once before, during the Boer War (1899 – 1902), the British had supplemented their domestic supply with overseas purchases, largely from America. This is what led to the nearly-immediate purchase of American animals, purchases which eventually reached the hundreds of thousands.NN unloading mules into pens from trainUnloading mules from the train into pens at Newport News.

Just as in England, military needs were not a huge driver for horse and mule production in the huge horse market in the United States. The dollars that the British and U.S. Remount services paid were, however, certainly welcome!

In 1914, horses and mules were still traded as a commodity all over the United States, but the largest markets were in the mid-west and to some extent in the south, where agriculture still depended on horse and mule power to pull agricultural equipment in the fields. For the war, a vast web of suppliers soon developed, driven by the lure of selling to the British army purchasers.

The Midwest, bread basket of the country and home to millions of acres under cultivation, was the supply hub. Lathrop, Missouri became the center for British purchases because it was the headquarters of Guyton and Harrington, the company that had the exclusive contract to supply British purchasing needs. They had a network of sub-contractors in Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. The animals that came from west of Missouri generally shipped through Lathrop, while those that originated further east were shipped through a network of depots to the embarkation points on the east coast.
The far western states were somewhat represented but could not supply the sheer numbers of animals that the Midwest could. Also, the west did not typically supply draft animals, and the light draft horse and draft mule were what was wanted. Still, the supply network went as far as Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. These animals had very long train rides to get to the depot in Lathrop, and even further to get to the east coast.2


  1. Graham Winton, “Theirs Not To Reason Why, Horsing the British Army 1875-1925.” Helion & Company Ltd., Solihull, 2013, P. 223
  2. Ibid., Winton, p. 361.



On May 19, 1917, the Christian Science Monitor, a major national newspaper, published the following:

Mule and Horse Buying
Washington, D.C. - Orders have been issued by the War Department, for purchase of 250,000 horses and mules for the Army, at a cost not to exceed $100,000,000.
[in 2017, one hundred years later, this $100 million would be equivalent to $1,940,666,660, or nearly $2 billion.]

The British felt that, for political reasons, their buying operation should be headquartered in the British commonwealth country of Canada. But it was well understood that Canada did not have nearly enough animals to meet the need, and that most of the purchases would actually come from the U.S.

With the huge numbers that were involved, the operation in the U.S. was streamlined early-on, using experience and contacts forged by the British only a few years earlier, as they bought animals for another conflict, the Boer War, fought in South Africa. The last Boer War horses left the U.S. in 1902, and a decade later, it was not hard to re-start the procurement operation.

An extensive network of British buyers fanned out across the U.S., inspecting and accepting or rejecting animals based on age, conformation, size, weight, and overall suitability. It was not necessary for the animals to be well trained; in fact, many were hardly what would be called “green-broke.”

They could not have any physical issues that would lead to early breakdown, such as crooked legs, swollen joints, deformed hooves, eye problems, or evidence of chronic disease. Ideally, they would be of a stocky build and not overly tall, since most of these animals were being bought as draft animals, not as riding horses.

The British had their own ideas as to what constituted the ideal cavalry horse, and what the U.S. Army wanted as a cavalry horse did not meet the British requirements. As well, it soon became apparent that the cavalry as a fighting force was not going to play a large role in the fighting in France. Officers still were issued horses, just as today they might be allotted a Jeep and driver, and those horses were of the general cavalry specification, not draft horses.

But the vast majority of horses and mules bought and sent to France or other fronts were draft-type animals plus some pack mules.

Whether bought by European countries before the U.S. entered the war, or by the U.S. in 1917-1918, they began their journey on a farm, the horses usually from the American Midwest but sometimes from as far west as Texas, Wyoming, Idaho, or Montana. Mules came from Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia – states that raised cotton, and used hundreds of thousands of mules in the cotton fields.

Dealers assembled groups of animals from farms to show the buyers, who looked at hundreds of horses or mules a day. The exclusive overarching contract with the British was held by Guyton and Harrington of Lathrop, Missouri, and they then contracted with dealers around the country.

As soon as it was agreed that a particular animal passed the buyer’s scrutiny, it was branded, mainly to keep some tally of which were accepted and which were rejected. Some of the rejects were also marked, usually on a hoof, to make sure they were not presented the next day!

Did This Cause Breeders To Increase Their Herds?

With this kind of money changing hands, and even more during the early years of the war from the English buyers, were the sellers motivated to breed more animals in hopes of making yet more money the next year?

The answer is no.
It is important to remember that every horse or mule that was used during the war was already foaled and on the ground by 1914. There was no increase in production in the horse and mule industry, as happened in, for instance, the wagon industry.

The foals of 1914 would have been only three-year-olds by 1917, ready for training and possibly sold into service that year or the next. All the other horses that went to war were born before 1914, and bred before 1913 (an equine pregnancy lasts 11 months). And, not knowing how long the war would go on, but with no real reason to believe it would last for even a decade, breeders were not moved to try to increase their breeding operations.

Horse dealers (as opposed to breeders) did grow their businesses, reaching out to larger numbers of farmers and breeders to pull together herds of animals for inspection and purchase by the military.



Shipping Overview

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Adolf K.G.E. von Spiegel commanded a German U-boat during the First World War. In his memoirs he described an April 1916 attack on a vessel carrying horses.

"The steamer appeared to be close to us and looked colossal. I saw the captain walking on his bridge, a small whistle in his mouth. I saw the crew cleaning the deck forward, and I saw, with surprise and a slight shudder, long rows of wooden partitions right along all decks, from which gleamed the shining black and brown backs of horses.
'Oh heavens, horses! What a pity, those lovely beasts!'
'But it cannot be helped,' I went on thinking. 'War is war, and every horse the fewer on the Western front is a reduction of England's fighting power.'
I must acknowledge, however, that the thought of what must come was a most unpleasant one, and I will describe what happened as briefly as possible.
'Stand by for firing a torpedo!' I called down to the control room.' 'FIRE!' A slight tremor went through the boat - the torpedo had gone. The death-bringing shot was a true one, and the torpedo ran towards the doomed ship at high speed. I could follow its course exactly by the light streak of bubbles which was left in its wake. I saw that the bubble-track of the torpedo had been discovered on the bridge of the steamer, as frightened arms pointed towards the water and the captain put his hands in front of his eyes and waited resignedly. Then a frightful explosion followed, and we were all thrown against one another by the concussion, and then, like Vulcan, huge and majestic, a column of water two hundred metres high and fifty metres broad, terrible in its beauty and power, shot up to the heavens.
'Hit abaft the second funnel,' I shouted down to the control room. All her decks were visible to me. From all the hatchways a storming, despairing mass of men were fighting their way on deck, grimy stokers, officers, soldiers, grooms, cooks. They all rushed, ran, screamed for boats, tore and thrust one another from the ladders leading down to them, fought for the lifebelts and jostled one another on the sloping deck. All amongst them, rearing, slipping horses are wedged. The starboard boats could not be lowered on account of the list; everyone therefore ran across to the port boats, which in the hurry and panic, had been lowered with great stupidity either half full or overcrowded. The men left behind were wringing their hands in despair and running to and fro along the decks; finally they threw themselves into the water so as to swim to the boats.
Then - a second explosion, followed by the escape of white hissing steam from all hatchways and scuttles.
The white steam drove the horses mad. I saw a beautiful long-tailed dapple-grey horse take a mighty leap over the berthing rails and land into a fully laden boat. At that point I could not bear the sight any longer, and I lowered the periscope and dived deep."1 

ss armenian sunk with 1400 mules and 29 crew 18 june 1915The S.S. Armenian, sunk on 18 June 1915 off the coast of England, with a loss of 1422 mules and 29 crew.Dying at sea was not actually as likely as it might have seemed, though it certainly did happen, particularly before the U.S. Navy entered the war. One of the first actions of U.S. involvement was to convoy horse and mule transport ships across the Atlantic, protecting them with warships equipped to hunt and sink German submarines. With the British shipping an average of 3200 animals a week, and sometimes many more, the ships and their live cargo were certainly a prime target. As the German officer noted, these animals were essential for the war effort, and anything that could be done to limit the flow was going to help the German cause.

Though the numbers do not quite add up to the same totals as cited in other works, a careful tally by one authority states that of the 703,705 animals shipped from Atlantic ports during the entire war, 13,724 were lost at sea. Of these, only about half (6,667) were lost to enemy action (either shellfire or sinking), with the rest lost due to illness, on-board fires, storms, and other non-battle sinkings.2

This list is at least a partial tally:

SS Marquette - 491 mules and 50 horses
SS Norseman - 1,100 mules of which 740 were saved, because ship was beached
SS Crosshill - Mules on board (number not known)
SS Palermo - 858 mules and 163 horses
SS Cameronian - 877 mules
SS ElobySS Nicola - 32 mules
SS Hyperia - Mules on board (number not known)
SS Japanese Prince - 310 horses and 505 mules, ship damaged but mules escaped
SS Armenian - 1422 mules
SS Georgic - horses on board (number not known)
SS Argalia and SS Athenia - total of 899 horses

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