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 [U.S.] 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, horses coming usually from the American mid-west 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 new demand causing a spike in the horse and mule market, 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.
Where They Came From
In both the U.S. and Great Britain, horses were still seen in city streets in 1914, but they had begun to be replaced by motorized vehicles, including passenger busses and cars. 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.Unloading mules from the train into pens at Newport News.
France also made large purchases in the U.S. The Danville, Kentucky Advocate Messenger reported on January 22, 1915 that "The French government has decided to mount its cavalry on horses from the Blue Grass exclusively, it was revealed when R.F. Carman, one of the best-known turfmen in the country, left for Lexington and Louisville, Ky., with an order in his pocket for the purchase of 60,000 remounts for the French government. This is but the initial order, and Carman states that he is going to buy all the horses he can get hold of."2
There are no records available on how many horses Carman was able to buy, but 60,000 would have been a very large number if he wanted Thoroughbreds, a breed mainly used for racing. The annual foal crop in Kentucky hovered around 10,000 per year even many years later, and finding 60,000 horses of appropriate age and training status in 1915 would have been doubtful.
Just as in England, military needs were not a big 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 farm equipment in the fields. Early in 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, became the supply hub for horses and mules. 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. It 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.3
- Graham Winton, “Theirs Not To Reason Why, Horsing the British Army 1875-1925.” Helion & Company Ltd., Solihull, 2013, p. 223.
- Danville, Kentucky Advocate Messenger, January 22, 1915, p.3.
- Ibid., Winton, p. 361.