By the Numbers
Every source of information on the use of animals in World War I has a discussion of the numbers involved, and every discussion comes up with different totals. This website will use official U.S.1 and British2 government publications for definitive numbers, but discussion of the many other numbers is still warranted.
A French veterinary report claims that 30% of animals used by the French army were imported (mainly horses, perhaps some mules), a total of about 525,000, with "a few tens of thousands" from Argentina and the rest from the U.S. - perhaps 485,000, lacking any more accurate data.3 Other countries, notably Belgium, Germany, and Italy, also made significant purchases. A North Fort Worth News (Texas) reporter counted 15 different army uniforms at a mule sale shortly after the beginning of the war.4 Unfortunately, accurate numbers for the smaller purchasers are not available.
It would be roughly accurate to say that about 1,325,000 American horses and mules were used in the war. This accounts for the 67,725 U.S. animals brought from the U.S. by the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), plus those shipped from the U.S. by Britain (672,303) and France (approximately 485,000), and an estimated 100,000 more added to account for the remaining countries that also purchased in the U.S.
Every fighting force in the war experienced a shortage of animals. Horses and mules were the basic power sources for nearly all vehicles in the war, including pulling guns and supply wagons. The German defeat was in some part related to their running out of animal power.
During the twenty months that the U.S. was involved in the war, 243,360 animals (horses and mules) were procured from the United States, France, England and Spain for the Allied Expeditionary Force (A.E.F. was the official designation of the U.S. forces in France). A fruitless search for animals extended, in the summer of 1918, to Portugal and Morocco.5 For the U.S., the Quartermaster Corps reported the following for the A.E.F. in France:
What stands out in the U.S. numbers is the what a small portion of the animals used by American forces were shipped from the U.S. remount depots – only 28%. Over half the animals came from the French (55%). England supplied 9%, and Spain the remaining 8%. It is also worth noting that later official counts of animal owned by the U.S. Army during World War 1 show 325,000 horses and 156,000 mules.6 These numbers are far larger than the numbers in France because most of these animals never left the U.S. There were no ships available to transport them, though they were very badly needed in France.
British numbers are important because so many animals used by the British forces actually came from America, most from the U.S. and about 31,4027 from Canada. In the table below, all the Canadian purchases are counted as horses, because Canada had very few mules to begin with, and there are no figures available for the exact split. That being said, here are the British numbers for animals, not including those from India or Australia:
Horses and mules obtained from Australia and India went directly to British forces in the Middle East. Horses from North America were shipped directly to France in the early months of the war, but after that were shipped to England and then distributed to France, Egypt, and other points in the Middle East.
This means that there is a significant chance that some of the horses rescued in Egypt by Dorothy Brooke, whose work led to the founding of the world’s largest equine charity and its US partner www.brookeusa.org, could have been horses that originally came from the United States.
Mules that were destined for British troops in Egypt were shipped directly there from the U.S. even after all British remount shipments of horses had been re-routed to England, and all of the South American mules went to Egypt. Neither England nor Canada were a significant source of mules.
U.S. Supply Problems
In the two years following the landing of the Expeditionary Forces in France in June 1917, the U.S. Remount Service expanded from one officer and clerk to an organization of 493 officers and 14,598 enlisted men. These were the personnel who cared for the horses and mules, tried to fill the requisitions for healthy animals, and moved sick or injured animals to veterinary hospitals. All the hospitals were run by the British and French; click here for more on veterinary care.
American troops were desperately short of animals during their entire time in France. General John J. Pershing, commander of the A.E.F., personally intervened several times to try to increase the number of animals available to his troops. In his Final Report, published by the War Department in 1919, he details how hard he pushed to get adequate numbers of draft animals, but to little avail. Pershing was a cavalry officer, an expert horseman, and clearly understood the problem from every aspect.
The supply of animals (mainly draft horses and mules) after the U.S. entered the war was a problem because there were not enough ships available to take both animals and men to France, and the Allied forces (Britain and France) were clamoring for fighting men. As with all armies, the logistics of supply and transportation did not get as much attention as did the soldier that was being supported. Yet, that soldier could not fight without food, ammunition, and in WW1, without animals.
Every army has stories of being told to do more with less, to make do, until supply lines can catch up. In WW1, this meant that horses and mules also had to make do, and work longer days, because there were not enough animals to allow for the needed rest periods. There were also not enough harnesses, saddles, blankets, brushes, or horse shoes. But mainly, there simply were not enough animals, and this caused great suffering and overwork to those that were there. At times, there was not even enough food.
Horsetrading Deals With France
Also common with military and diplomatic affairs, there was a lot of talk at various leadership levels, both to try to solve the problem or make its effects seem less. France, for instance, wanting to maximize the number of troops coming from the U.S., agreed to supply 7,000 horses per month to the U.S. forces beginning on September 1, 1917. This would have been sufficient for some months, and thus, no more horse shipments were planned from the U.S., despite the animal purchase pipelines being full of animals waiting for transport.
But in late August, the French reneged and said that they could not supply the animals after all. U.S. shipments resumed in November 2017 and continued regularly until April 1918, when they stopped owing to a shortage of shipping, but supply never caught up with demand. The primary U.S. shipping depot at Newport News remained at capacity with 10,000 animals awaiting transport for months, because there was no space on ships for the horses and mules.
The dealings between the French and U.S. armies about horses present a classic picture of what is still called “horse-trading,” and would be comical if living animals had not been involved. The French understanding of their commander’s agreements to supply horses to the incoming U.S. forces was that they (the French) would select horses to take to the U.S. officials, who would then simply accept them and lead them away. The U.S. understanding was quite different – they would inspect the animals and reject any they did not find suitable.
One can imagine that the French did not select their very best animals, and the U.S. inspectors were perhaps more picky than they should have been. This resulted in about 30% of the animals being rejected and having to be shipped back to the French depots from which they came. When the animals were rejected, the French indignantly stated that these very animals were doing work in the French army, and the U.S. stated that the animals did not conform to U.S. specifications. As the Quartermaster’s report says,
“Some of the horses presented were from 12 to 15 years old, some were blind in one eye and there were a number of gray and white horses. The French representatives objected strongly to these rejections, calling attention to the fact that their own Army was using such animals with good results…”8
Part of the difficulties resulted from the differences in classification that the French and U.S. used; the French heavy artillery horse, for instance, was considered a light artillery horse by the U.S. In August 1917, when again the French presented horses to the U.S. and 50% were rejected, the French authorities stopped presenting animals for inspection.
Discussions were held, U.S. authorities instructed their inspectors because of the shortage of sea tonnage (that is, space on ships) to reject only animals that were absolutely unsound or sick, and the French again started presenting animals. This sort of thing happened several times, with several different sets of inspectors, and friction mounted, with the French soon withdrawing their offer of the 7,000 animals per month.
However, the French could certainly see that the American forces needed animals in order to fight. Some 4,000 were loaned to the U.S. in the fall of 1917, although the loan was understood at first by the U.S. commanders as a simple transfer with no pay-back. Eventually this was solved by having the U.S. pay for the animals.
A final quote from the Remount Report serves to further illustrate the continually changing agreements between the U.S. and the French.
“The French Government was requested January 1st, 1918, to make a survey of the needs of the U. S. Army for animals for the purpose of determining whether it would be possible to obtain in France the necessary number for existing needs and in return an offer was made by the American Army to turn over tonnage space on ships for the transportation of French purchases in America. A request was then made by the French as to the number of animals that would be required.
“At that time the French Government was considering the reduction by nearly 200,000 animals in their Armies on account of the shortage of grain. It was expected that there would be turned over to the U. S. Army seasoned animals and many that already had been trained. Later in January the French Government decided in view of the coming spring activities that it would not be good policy to reduce the number of animals in their armies. As the American Army had loaned the French several thousand tons of grain the French agreed to purchase animals in the open market, one-half of which would be turned over to the U.S. Army.”9
The Remount Report is of course written without commentary on the level of frustration that these continuing reversals must have brought, along with ill-will between commanders who were allies in the war effort. The real suffering, though, was among the animals which were in France, doing double duty in harsh conditions.
The Final Few
Eventually there was in fact a loan of grain to the French from the U.S. forces and the subsequent payback by the French, not in grain but in animals.
As a payback for the grain, the agreement with France in February 1918 provided that the French would buy 100,000 horses in the open market in France and turn over 50% of them to the U.S. forces. But the purchase effort was unsuccessful, yielding only 31,589 animals by June 20.
The war would end five months later, but that was not forseen, and some of the hardest fighting was still ahead in the fall of 1918.
All this time, more and more U.S. forces had been pouring into France, and by June 25, there was a shortage in the A.E.F. of 125,934 animals, mostly draft horses and both draft and pack mules (more soldiers meant more animals needed to pull guns and supply these additional soldiers with food and ammunition). To put this in perspective, this shortage was close to half the total number animals ever to be used by the A.E.F. in France.
By August, the French had supplied 74,070 animals to the A.E.F, and shipping from the U.S. was resumed in September 1918. Official requests from U.S. commanders in Europe for between 30,000 and 46,924 animals per month were met in Washington with the response that these numbers were impossible to supply.
In fact, only 4,409 more animals were shipped from the U.S. in September and October 1918, though 22,000 had been promised in a cablegram from the War Department of July 21, 1918.
Fighting was fierce in the spring and summer of 1918 and the U.S. was sending additional troops at the rate of tens of thousands of men per month. An additional 25,000 to 30,000 animals per month were needed, and when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, U.S. troops were still officially short 163,382 animals.
For a complete discussion on what happened to our animals after the Armistice on November 11, 1918, click here. Briefly, the U.S. army immediately began to see animal care and feeding as an unnecessary expense and efforts were implemented to dispose of nearly all animals still in France. Except for a few officer’s horses (in most cases, horses that had been personally supplied by the officers themselves), there was no thought of sending the animals back to the U.S. Animals were a commodity, they were no longer needed, and worse still, they ate and required daily care. Thus, the quicker they could be transferred out of the U.S. inventory, the more money could be saved.
Total on hand June 28, 1919: 34,327
American Dollars and British Pounds
Horses and mules cost money, and as every horse owner knows, the purchase price is just the beginning! In fact, one very practical reason for moving from animal power to motor power was the fact that animals needed daily feeding and care even when not working, where motor vehicles could sit indefinitely at no cost until needed again. Had the Great War happened even ten years later, the role of animals would have been very different, because motor vehicles had become much more capable and reliable by the mid-1920s.
But in 1914-1918, despite efforts to mechanize the army, animals still provided more reliable and versatile power. It was said, and without exaggeration, that nearly anything that moved during the war had a horse or a mule hitched to it!
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.10 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.
Prices for both horses and mules varied depending on the size of the animal, with larger animals generally costing more. The only exception to this was the cost of officer’s horses, which were of a finer type than ordinary cavalry horses and came at a higher cost.
Far more American horses and mules went to war under the British flag than under the U.S. flag, and far more dollars flowed to American dealers for them.
At the outset of the war, British buyers came to Canada and the U.S. and within months, they had a robust purchasing network in place. There were of course the expected jockeying for prices between buyer and seller. Soon, the British began depending on a single trusted agent, Guyton and Harrington in Lathrop, Missouri. Guyton and Harrington had many sub-agents and suppliers across the country, and the company sold some 90,000 mules plus many more horses during World War I.
There were days during peak mule demand when up to 100 trains went through tiny Lathrop (population 1,100). The facilities in Lathrop were able to feed and support 17,000 mules at a time, featuring barns as large as 65,520 square feet. Trains coming into Lathrop not only delivered and received mules, but also brought in grain and hay for feeding the massive number of mules on hand. The large number of trains would often tie up the tracks for miles. At times, switch tracks where backed up as far as Leavenworth, Kansas, a distance of over fifty miles.11
Other sources claim that the company supplied the English with 350,000 animals in all during the First World War.12 Still others claim that the Lathrop facility could handle 18,000 horses or 25,000 mules.13 Regardless, to put the size of the operation in perspective, consider that 500 buyers were needed just to keep the flow of animals into and out of Lathrop moving smoothly.
By April of 1916 the British Remount Commission had agreed with U.S. dealers on prices as follows:
Heavy Artillery horses - $220; Field Artillery horses - $200; Cavalry horses - $185
After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, prices were negotiated with U.S. officials in order not to start a bidding war. Britain had discovered that it did not really like the horses that the U.S. regarded as cavalry horses, and in any case, the cavalry was not being used much. Cavalry horse prices had fallen to $175.00 and were further negotiated down to $165.00, but the two nations were not really bidding against each other for this market. For draft horses, the two nations had different specifications and again, there was not much actual cross-over, the British buyers wanting a heavier horse than the Americans needed.
The market for mules was another story. Again, the two countries had different specifications, but they overlapped and there was also a robust mule market in the cotton producing states in the southern U.S. In the end, someone wanted every mule that was fit! Mule prices fluctuated with the price of cotton, and sometimes exceeded horse prices.
U.S. specifications for mules included three classes, and British had only one class:
But of course added to the cost of animals purchased in the U.S, would have to be the shipping cost to Europe. Animals purchased from the U.S. Allies were already in Europe. Thus, the purchase prices agreed by the U.S. and Britain were just the beginning of the cost of getting the animal to the soldier.
Shipping, Including rail costs and the holding period at port, more than doubled the initial purchase price by the time the animal was at work in the battlefield. And, the cost to feed an animal in Europe, per day, was $1.57 (about $27.68 in 2017 dollars, which will not surprise some horse owners!) The table below summarizes the total cost for horses for the AEF as reported by the Army Quartermaster after the war.14 (All prices reflect the cost of an animal on the ground in Europe; thus, U.S. prices include shipping to Europe, while animals purchased from other countries were already in Europe):
*includes a mixture of mules, light horses, and draft horses
**heavy artillery horse price; other horses would have been less
- 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”
- Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914 – 1920” published by The War Office, March 1922. Numbers of horses reported from North America have been divided into U.S. and Canadian purchases, see note 7.
- Bruneau, Roland. Les Equides Dans la Grande Guerre, Bulletin Histoire de la Médecine et des Sciences Vétérinaires, February 12, 2005. http://www.histoire-medecine-veterinaire.fr/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Bull-soc-fr-hist-med-sci-vet-2005-03.pdf
- Quoted in Horses for War: A Market for Wyoming Stockmen, https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/horses-war-market-wyoming-stockmen
- Remount Report p1.
- Ltr, OCMH to CINFO, MDW: Subj: Press Query, dtd 9 Jul 1959
- Graham Winton, “Theirs Not To Reason Why, Horsing the British Army 1875-1925.” Helion & Company Ltd., Solihull, 2013, P.359
- Remount Report para 48.
- Remount Report, para 55.
- Ibid, Winton, P.223
- The Tennessean, Nashville, Tennessee, Sunday, September 12, 1915, p. 49.
- Remount Report para 65.