For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Medieval English proverb.
Horseshoes have also not changed much, especially utility shoes such as those worn by horses and mules in the battlefield.
They are still made of iron, and are still heated at a forge and hammered on an anvil, shaped to fit each individual animal's feet.
They still come in the same sizes and shapes, front horse shoes round, hind horse shoes narrower and more pointed, and mule shoes with their characteristic U-shape, nearly identical front and back.
There is little information about horseshoes during the war, probably because they were considered a routine item of supply not worth further mention. There were advertisements in the Cavalry Journal for both shoes and nails – evidence that true horsemen did think about these necessities.
Thinking about horseshoes can lead to a little fun with math:
Estimates vary of how long each animal served after being bought for the army, but 30 months would seem a reasonable average – some of that in training in the U.S., some standing around in remount depots waiting to be shipped overseas, and some on the battlefield. Much of that time, the animal might not have been shod – for instance, part of the time in the remount depot in the U.S.
But on arrival in France, and for the entire duration of its tour of duty there, every animal wore a full set of four shoes.
So for the sake of averages, let us say that the animal wore shoes for 15 months – probably conservative.
Horses and mules need to have their shoes either replaced or, at a minimum, re-set, every 6 weeks, because their hooves grow at the rate of about ¼ to 3/8 inch during that time – the amount varies with the time of year, nutritional status of the animal, terrain, and probably other factors as well. One set of shoes will often last for 12 weeks, that is, for an initial shoeing and one re-set.
So, each animal would go through at least 6 sets of shoes in those 15 months. Perhaps more, because in the mud, many shoes were lost, and the animals were being worked long hours, with more wear on their shoes as a result, and probably not as many re-sets.
Horse shoes weigh about a pound each – more for draft horses with big feet, less for small pack horses or mules.
So, if there were 243,360 animals used by the A.E.F., and each wore shoes an average of 15 months, that would be 6 sets of shoes x 4 shoes per set x 243,360 animals = 5,840,640 shoes, at about 1 pound per shoe – or 2,920 TONS of horseshoes!
To try to get an idea of how much this really is, it is about the same as the weight of 1,150 pickup trucks.
Each shoe requires 6 nails: over 35 million nails for just the A.E.F. horses in World War 1.