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Setting The Scene

  •  - Where did all this happen?
  •  - Why were so many animals there? 
  •  - What were the trenches and why were they dug?
  •  - And why was there so much mud?
It is important to understand the battlefield situation to be able to imagine what it must have been like for both animals and men.


Where Did the Horses and Mules Serve?

Horses and mules which came from the U.S. served mainly with British, French, and U.S. forces, though some were bought by the Germans, Italians, and Belgians. The animals were taken to the countries that had bought them, and served where those armies served, which would be their own soil as well as the countries they invaded or defended, such as Egypt. The U.S. army fought in France and Belgium with the British and French. All of the armies (except the troops in Egypt) eventually ended up occupying Germany for several months after the end of the war, so some American horses and mules ended up there also.


What Was the Western Front and What Was It West Of?

greatwar.com map of western frontThe Western Front was a somewhat fluid border area along the western edge of Belgium and the eastern border of France. It was west of Germany, which gave it its name. Germany had already overrun Belgium, so this area was the western-most area in which the Germans were fighting. Note the location of Ypres in the north and Verdun in the south; these areas were the site of months of fighting and some of the heaviest casualties of the war for both men and animals.

How Did the War Start?

Many people wonder how World War I became a conflict with so many nations at war with each other. The answer, though vastly over-simplified. lies in two aspects of the world at the time: history and alliances.

History and Boundaries

In 1914, nations in Europe, particularly Germany, had not existed with their same boundaries and national identity for very long. Only a century before, in 1806, the Holy Roman Empire, which had held together a huge portion of Europe for 1000 years, had finally fallen apart. The final remnant of its arch rival, the Ottoman Empire, was still in existence at the dawn of World War I, and controlled (or recently had controlled) much of what we now call the Middle East and Turkey.

The small duchies, cities, principalities, and kingdoms that had covered Europe for centuries (and had been defended by the overarching Holy Roman Empire) were left scrambling to find alliances and sort out how they would defend themselves. During the 1800s, improved communications, transportation, and trade led these small entities into larger and larger federations. Countries with the boundaries we might recognize now, began to emerge.

The boundaries were largely based on geography, language and culture, but there were always border areas with multiple cultures and languages. These included the Piedmont (between Italy and Austria); Schleswig-Holstein (between Denmark and Germany); the Jura (between France and Switzerland); the Sudetenland (between Austria-Hungary (and what later became Czechoslovakia) and Germany); Alsace-Lorraine (between Germany and France; and several countries collectively known as the Balkans (on the border of Hungary and adjacent to Russia). These borderlands would become spark points and pawns in the years to come.


Among the federations and nations that formed during the 1800s, alliances were formed to defend against perceived threats and foster common goals. France allied with Britain, which had been in both an arms race and a contest of economic superiority with Germany for some time. Russia joined this alliance in part because it had a long-standing desire to take control of the Balkan areas just south of Austria-Hungary, and which were somewhat controlled by Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Germany’s alliance with Austria-Hungary dated to the mid-1800s. Italy was a weaker member of this alliance, having border disputes with Austria-Hungary over the Piedmont region, and having made a secret treaty with France that if Germany attacked France, Italy would remain neutral. The Ottoman Empire had a secret alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany, but outwardly declared neutrality until after the war had started. However, its entry into the war in October 1917 resulted in British forces fighting in the Middle East (Egypt was already under British colonial rule), and eventually brought Dorothy Brooke to Cairo. Thus, BrookeUSA is a direct descendant of the Ottoman Empire’s decision to enter the war.

Events in the summer of 1914 showed how quickly these alliances could bring countries into a war out of all scale to the event that triggered it, the assassination of Austria’s heir to the throne while he was on a visit to Sarajevo, in Bosnia/Herzegovina. The assassin was from Serbia. Recall that Austria-Hungary and Russia were rivals over control of several of the Balkan states, including Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, and others in that region.

Russia soon declared its support of Serbia in the diplomatic arguments that followed the assassination. Why? Because Russia saw this conflict as an opportunity to seize more influence over the Balkans.

Russia began to mobilize. Germany, having a long border with Russia and being an ally of Austria-Hungary which had an even longer border with Russia, demanded that the mobilization stop. It did not, and on August 1, Germany declared war on Russia.

Thus began the fall of the dominos. Russia’s ally was France, and on August 3, France and Germany declared war on each other, Germany having decided that this was as good a time as any to pursue its territorial ambitions in Alsace-Lorraine, and France was after all an ally of Russia, and thus fair game.

So how was Britain dragged into a war that only involved countries on the European continent? Belgium had declared itself as neutral in 1839, and Britain had an agreement with Belgium, to protect it in case of invasion. Declaring neutrality worked for Switzerland, well protected by mountains on all sides, and for Spain, divided from the rest of Europe by mountains and surrounded by the sea on three sides. But it did not work for Belgium, which was a flat, easily invaded area that was in the way of German troops as they invaded France. Germany simply marched across Belgium, which resisted but quickly became an occupied country for the rest of the war. This act became known as “the Rape of Belgium” and stirred enormous animosity toward Germany and sympathy toward Belgium, that lasted for the rest of the war. Germany announced its planned invasion of neutral Belgium on August 4, and Britain immediately declared war on Germany.

Thus, in the summer of 1914, the major countries of Europe, with the exception of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy (the latter neutral at the outset, and actually joining the war on the side of Britain and France in 1915), found themselves in a major war. Still, it was expected at least in some quarters, that the war would be over by Christmas. Hundreds of thousands of lives later, the war finally ended on November 11, 1918.

For a simple summary of war facts and statistics, click here.

An interactive map showing some of these alliances and political factors can be found at http://maps.canadiangeographic.ca/outbreak-of-first-world-war-map/ . There are of course dozens of sources easily available on the internet regarding events leading up to World War I.

How Did the United States Get Into the War?

This question can be answered quickly by accessing a link to the National World War I Museum and Memorial site, https://www.theworldwar.org/us-enters-war .

lusitania sinks ww1The Lusitania, a passenger liner with 2000 aboard including 127 Americans, was sunk by a German submarine in 1915. Public outrage nudged Germany to adopt a policy of targeting only warships for the next two and a half years. Many years later it was confirmed that there were also arms and ammunition in the Lusitania's cargo holds.The tipping point of public opinion that allowed the U.S. to enter the war revolved around Germany’s use of submarine warfare to sink ships carrying supplies, including horses, to Britain. Pressures from neutral nations such as the U.S. had caused Germany to step back from its policy and from mid-1915 to the end of 1916, it agreed to target only enemy shipping – of course, this included British horse transports. But in February 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and immediately, several U.S. merchant ships were sunk – five in March alone. A secret telegram was also intercepted in which Germany tried to form an alliance with Mexico, promising the return to Mexico some land along the U.S. border. These events turned public opinion, and in April, the U.S. declared war on Germany. The U-boat threat was significant: in April 1917, 430 Allied and neutral ships totaling 852,000 tons were sunk. The U.S. introduced the convoy system, in which warships escorted merchant ships across the ocean, and relatively rapidly the U-boat threat was greatly reduced. But Germany’s gambit, of so reducing the flow of supplies to England that the tide of the war would turn in Germany’s favor, actually became the decision that brought two million U.S. troops into the war and sealed the defeat of Germany and her allies.

The World War I Centennial Commission website has excellent links to WW1 historical resources, including http://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/edtechteacher-world-war-one-history-web-sites.html . The U.S. World War I Museum also has a section of its website devoted entirely to the entry of the U.S. into the war, https://www.theworldwar.org/us-enters-war .

What Was the World Like In 1914?

There is probably no other single 100 year period in human history in which as much as changed than the period between 1915 and 2015. In 1915, here is what the world looked like:

  • Henry Ford had opened the Model T assembly line only 8 months before WW1 began. The Ford Motor Company offered an astonishing 8 hour day at $5/day wages, replacing $2.40 for a 9-hour day.
  • The average American male Army recruit was 5’7” tall and weighed 145 lbs.quaker oats ad
  • It took about five days to get from New York to California on the train, which was the fastest way to travel.
  • Almost no women worked outside their own home except as domestic servants.
  • The income tax rate in the U.S. was 1% on net personal incomes above $3,000 (the equivalent of about $75,560 in 2017 dollars), with a 6% surtax on incomes above $500,000 (the equivalent of about $12,592,800 in 2017 dollars). These rates would soon rise steeply as the U.S. entered the war and needed tax dollars to finance its fighting force.
  • There were no radio or television stations, and of course no internet or cell phones. Some people had home telephones if they lived in a city, but people who lived in the country usually had to travel to the local country store to use a telephone. The first transcontinental phone call, between New York and San Francisco, and was considered a major accomplishment.
  • Knowledge of nutrition was very limited, and the concept of the calorie had just been discovered. Thus, food advertisements focused on getting enough calories!
  • There were no antibiotics and sick people or animals simply had to get over sickness on their own. Minimal treatments were available, usually using somewhat toxic chemicals and plant preparations that hoped to poison the infection before they damaged the patient too greatly.
  • Baseball was a popular national pastime, but football and basketball were not played except at the college level and below.
  • The Panama Canal had just opened, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. (the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea/Indian Ocean, had opened 45 years earlier).
  • The first commercial airline route in the U.S. was established, from St. Petersburg to Tampa. The first flight of any aircraft out of sight of land occurred when an aircraft was flown from Scotland to Norway, and the U.S. Army Air Service was inaugurated. In the next two years, Germany used aircraft to bomb Paris and Dover, England.
  • The first electric traffic light was installed in U.S. (Cleveland).

What Were the Trenches?

The thing that sets World War I’s 440-mile long Western Front apart in history is the extensive use of trenches and the lack of significant movement of the front line for years on end. Originally intended as a defensive shelter, trenches in earlier wars had been hastily dug to give cover from enemy shelling. But in World War 1, before many months had gone by, it was clear that the two armies (German against the allied French and British) were fairly evenly matched and that a stalemate was developing. Gradually, the two sides dug in and “improved” their trenches so that they were at least minimally suitable for long-term occupancy.Aerial view Loos Hulluch trench system July 1917

Each side dug in at a position that they firmly held, and those positions were separated by a strip of land known as “no-man’s land.”

In this aerial view of trenches near Loos-Hulluch in July 1917 the German trenches are on the right, Allied on the left, and no-man's land is between them.

Offensive moves had to go “over the top” of the trench and into no-man’s land, where they were completely exposed to artillery fire as well as having to navigate landmines and barbed wire barricades.

Casualties were very high and success, as measured by actually taking control of ground formerly held by the other side, was very limited. The width of no-man’s land, that is, the distance between the two opposing armies, ranged from about 250 yards to in some cases less than 30 feet.1

The seeming hopelessness of gaining ground did not keep commanders from trying to advance, especially during the first two years of the war. For instance, the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont, France was captured and recaptured by the French and Germans 16 times during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. The land surrounding it was so contaminated by explosives, poisonous gas and the decaying bodies of men, horses, and mules that the village was never rebuilt. 

The Germans apparently had a longer-term vision of their trench system and lined some of them with stone walls. The British troops were looking to repel the Germans and send them back over the border into Belgium, which Germany had overrun as it attacked France, and they were not thinking of their trenches as long-term structures, though in fact they turned into exactly that. Thus, some photos of the German trenches show a somewhat livable ditch arrangement, with roofed shelters and dugouts into the sides of hills.

soldiers in flooded trenchSoldiers in a flooded communications trench.The British trenches usually had planks and sandbags roughly lining their mud walls, and a narrow bottom that was often puddled with water. In neither case was there any way to get out of the cold, which on winter nights routinely fell below freezing.

Trenches had been used in warfare for centuries, mainly for siege situations. Their design in World War 1 evolved into a fairly standard configuration. The front and secondary trenches, nearest the actual battle line, were always built in a zig-zag pattern to make it impossible for a single well-placed line of machine gun fire to fall into a long stretch of one trench.

At some times the front trenches might be heavily manned, while at others there might be just a few sentries in the forward trenches at dawn and dusk. Access trenches reached back to a secondary trench further from the front line, and it was in this trench that soldiers stayed during most of the day.

Soldiers in the trenches did not get much sleep, because night was when most activity took place. Afternoon naps had to suffice, along with brief night sleep periods. Chores and fighting were interspersed with writing letters and playing cards. terrier and his rats french trench 1916A proud terrier and the rats it caught in just 15 minutes in a French trench in 1916.The trenches were often filthy places with sewage and decomposing bodies nearby. They were infested with millions of rats as well as body lice.

For the soldiers on trench rotation, a typical day would start a half-hour before sunrise with high alert that lasted until a half hour after daylight. These ere prime times for attacks. Breakfast and daily chores followed - cleaning weapons and the trench. Rest periods followed, with one soldier on duty while others slept. There was a mid-day meal and more down time, followed by an early dinner so that the men could be on high alert from a half hour before dusk to a half hour after dusk. As soon as it was full dark, the real work commenced - patrols, digging and repairing trenches, putting up barbed wire, getting supplies, food, and ammunition replenishments, and rotation of soldiers back to the rear trenches on a five or seven day cycle.

 A third trench even further back was filled with the reserve troops, those who were not on rotation to go into the front or second trenches that week. A web of communication trenches connected all of these. Supply dumps, animal care areas, and hospitals were further back still.

soldiers in trench hutsSoldiers in trench huts.The main activity in trench warfare took place at night, when there was some chance of entering no-man’s land undetected. Spy parties, raiding parties, and retrieval of the dead and wounded all took place at night. As well, food and ammunition were brought to the middle (and sometimes front) trenches by pack mule during the night. No light was allowed to be shown because that would invite enemy fire, and thus a trip that might have taken an hour in daylight might take half the night.

Gas was a terrifying weapon which left many veterans with chronic lung deficits. But in the long run it was not as effective as it was terrifying, because it depended on unpredictable winds to place it near the enemy, and it dissipated too quickly to have persistent effect. It was, however, dreaded by those in the trenches, partly because mustard gas was heavier than air and could linger in the bottom of the trenches far longer than anywhere else.

1Hamilton, John (2003), Trench Fighting of World War I, ABDO, p. 8, ISBN 1-57765-916-3.

Basics About Horses and Mules

Equines have certain basic traits of temperament, food needs, and habits. Knowledge of these traits becomes second nature to horsemen, but are often unknown to those who have not spent an extensive amount of time handling horses or mules. The effect of the wartime experience on these animals is much easier to understand of their basic nature is well understood. Because mules are a hybrid cross between horses and donkeys, they have traits from each of their parents and generally have a less tolerant temperament than horses.

horses sleeping in herdEven when domestic horses sleep outdoors in familiar pastures, one horse will always be standing to keep watch while the others sleep. These are normal sleeping positions for horses.

Horses are prey animals – that is, in the wild, they would be eaten for food by large carnivores such as wolves and lions. Much of the way horses interact with their environment is based on this aspect of being a prey animal. Horses are constantly watchful for danger, though they can get used to nearly anything if they find it does not harm them.

The first instinct of a horse is to run from new or unexpected things, but only a short distance. “Spooking” or “shying” are terms used by horsemen to describe this initial avoidance. After going perhaps 100 feet, the horse will turn and inspect the potentially dangerous situation, and either approach it for further inspection, sniffing, etc. or just keep an eye on it and avoid getting too close.

Bolting is an all-out fear response and when a horse is overcome by terror, it will gallop for a long distance before slowing down. Mules are if anything, more watchful than horses and somewhat more likely to bolt if presented with a very frightening situation. However, mules very rarely injure themselves while escaping from a situation, where horses may. Bolting was an ever-present issue on the battlefield, where a team of several horses pulling a gun (for instance) could endanger hundreds of men if they bolted and careened through groups of people, other horses, etc.

Horses are herd animals. They seek safety in numbers and are happiest when in a group of their own kind. When other horses are not present they may bond with other animals or with people. As herd animals, horses are very aware of which animals are dominant over which others, and where they belong in the pecking order. There is no evidence that horses are unhappy while lower in the pecking order; they simply want to figure out where they stand and then behave accordingly. Usually the leader of a group of horses will be a mare when it comes to day-to-day activities such as finding water or good grazing. A stallion takes leadership when he is challenged by another stallion for the possession of his herd of mares and foals. Either sex will defend foals from predators.

horse biteThe biting horse is using a moderate bite to warn off the other horse, perhaps from a pile of hay or some other territorial issue in the pasture. It is very unlikely that the skin will be broken, but some hair may get scraped off. This sort of bite happens frequently in play between geldings. Horses and mules generally kick and bite to defend themselves and show dominance. They rarely hurt each other severely in these actions. In herd situations, often all that is used is a suggestion that a bite or kick might come if a lower-ranked animal seems to be threatening the space of a higher ranked one. A head snaking out, or a hind leg raised slightly, is often warning enough. 

A blow with a front hoof is called striking (as distinct from kicking, which uses the hind legs). Striking is a sharp downward blow and can easily kill a person. Fortunately, striking is a defensive blow which horses and mules rarely revert to if handled with any sort of understanding at all.

The direction that a horse or mule points his ears tells where his attention is focused, which can be on two things at the same time. For instance, when being worked in a circle with a handler in the middle, one ear is often tuned to the handler while the other is pointed ahead in the direction the horse is travelling. Ears that are cocked partially back and turned somewhat sideways, with both ears at the same angle, indicate that the horse is focused inwardly and is attentive to the rider or driver.

When one hind leg is cocked with the hoof standing on its front tip, the horse is resting and in a relaxed frame of mind - that is, does not feel threatened or the possible need to avoid danger quickly. If danger threatens (and this could be as minor as a movement seen out of the corner of an eye), the horse will put the hind hoof flat on the ground in case flight is necessary, and will raise his head to be able to see and hear what is going on. If a front hoof is pointed in this manner, the horse is lame on that leg and is in significant pain.

Because their digestive tracts are designed for a fairly continuous low level intake of food during grazing, the stomach of the horse is always secreting acids used in digestion. Horses will develop digestive issues and ulcers if some sort of food, usually hay or grass, is not available for quite a few hours of each day. This was of course not always possible during wartime and led to some of the health problems the horses experienced.

Mares are female horses. Stallions are male horses, and geldings are male horses that have been castrated to make them more tractable. In the U.S., it is uncommon to use a stallion as an everyday work animal, but this is somewhat more common in Europe. Mules are born as either mares or stallions, but male mules are always castrated because as a hybrid, they are sterile and therefore of no use for breeding, but they will retain the temperaments of stallions unless castrated. Mares have hormonal cycles that can make them less tractable during a few days in each cycle, which is known as being “mareish.”

Horses use many body language signals, often very subtle, to communicate with each other. This goes along with their need not to draw attention to themselves when potential predators might be around – communication without sound is safer. Horsemen learn these body language signals and often instinctively begin to be able to imitate them, which allows them to communicate a great deal to horses simply by how they move when around them.

Horses do certainly use vocal sounds. A soft “huh-huh-huh” is a friendly greeting, used in many situations as diverse as a mare to her newborn foal and a horse when its owner comes into the barn. Snorting can be a sign of disapproval or of mild alarm and is generally not loud. Whinnying or neighing is a strong and immediate communication and can be very loud. It may be a call of distress, a warning, or indicate a desire by a nervous horse to connect with other horses that may be out of sight. All of these sounds are used not only with other horses but can be directed at people as well.

two horses meetingTwo horses meeting. Note their ears are forward - their attention is on the other horse. They are sniffing each other's breath. Very likely, this initial contact will be followed by one or both horses squealing at the other as some sort of dominance is being established. Squeals are generally not directed at people, but often follow an initial introduction between two horses that do not know each other or have not seen each other for a time. Squeals are often followed by nipping and/or some assertive body language that is aimed at establishing dominance and determining where each horse stands with regard to pecking order.

Mules use a loud sound called a bray rather than whinny, and they do so fairly frequently, thus earning them the wartime nickname “Missouri canaries.”

Why Were There So Many Horses and Mules?

Although all the armies that fought in World War I had high hopes about using the new motorized vehicles that were becoming a common sight in city streets, actual wartime experience quickly showed that the new vehicles were just not up to the task. They were not sturdy enough to withstand the rough roads and cross-country movements that were an everyday experience on the battlefield.

By 1914 there were not yet plans to completely eliminate horses and mules as a transportation power source, but there were motorized vehicles listed in place of the animals as part of the standard equipment for the armies. Thus, when the armies were called up, as many as 2 or 3 animals would be called up for about each 4 men - the numbers varied depending on the sort of force that was being assembled. When the vehicles did not work, the numbers of animals had to be increased. Both sides had extreme shortages of the horses and mules that pulled nearly every vehicle, from supply wagons to guns to ambulances.

There were also shortages of riding horses, used by many officers just as an officer would use a Jeep in the coming years. Pack animals, that were loaded with smaller items and traversed the few miles between the supply camps and the front lines, were in probably the shortest supply, because some of those jobs had originally been relegated to the gasoline vehicles that proved unequal to the task.

The supply of animals never caught up with the need, and every army was still claiming shortages when the war ended.

Mud In the Battlefield

Why was there so much mud in France and Belgium? Seemingly every photo shows deep, sticky mud, or horses up to their chests in mud, or wagons bogged down in mud.

Northern France and much of Belgium was (and is) largely farm country and has a deep silty clay soil. It is relatively flat and most of the area where the fighting occurred is less than 50 meters above sea level. Summers are warm and relatively dry, and winters are rainy, with an average of about 120 days of rain a year and 100 days of fog. Usual winter weather would have nights below freezing and days above freezing. However, there were several winters during the war that were unusually cold and had much more snow than the average. The mud froze into deep ruts and made passage impossible on some days; in any case, neither side made much headway during the worst of the winter weather.

Roads in the Western Front in 1914 were narrow and usually unpaved, and were adequate for farm traffic but not for the hundreds of thousands of men and animals that used them during the war. They quickly became mired in mud and traffic would have spilled off the roads into the fields, except those were even worse.

With neither side making any real advances, but rather shelling and bombing the same land over and over, the soil became so churned up that mud and shell holes filled with water could be six feet or more deep. Mud on roads and in camps was often ankle deep as a matter of routine. Roads were repaired constantly, and boards nailed together into rough platforms known as duck boards, were used to reinforce road surfaces, but horses and mules, as well as men, had to negotiate the mud as a matter of course.



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