Horses and mules were not a marginal resource for the Army during the First World War - they were to play a crucial role in the Allied victory. Whilst motorised vehicles had started being introduced into the ranks in 1903, the horse still reigned supreme for artillery and cavalry.
In 1914 the Army had a completely integrated transport system featuring horses, mechanised vehicles, and rail networks, but the rapid scale of expansion required for mobilisation in August of that year meant that the motor industry was unable to meet the military demand.
As a result, equines had once again become the key source of motive power.
Above: Horses ready for action on the Western Front
The normal army requirement was for between 2,500 and 3,000 remounts a year: a comparatively small number for which there no difficulty in achieving supply from within the UK. The problem was mobilising sufficient horses in the event of war, within ten days, for the Expeditionary and Territorial Forces- as well as provision for three-months supply of animals to replace a planned ‘wastage’ of 10 per cent in the field.
For general mobilisation, the Army required some 160,000 horses to be fit, trained, of the right class, type, and stamp, and in the right place at the right time.
The planned wartime establishment, including the first reserve for the whole British Expeditionary Force, was around 60,000 with a further 100,000 for the Territorials. A total of around 160,000 for an army of some 20 infantry divisions and 20 cavalry brigades, including the Cavalry Division.
The peacetime establishment of military horses based in the UK was about 20,000 and, in theory, there were around 20,000 more horses registered with Army Horse-Reserve schemes: a scheme in which owners of large numbers of horses, like the London omnibus companies, registered an agreed number of their horses with the War Office for an annual retaining fee of 10 shillings. In the event of emergency, these horses were sold at an agreed price.
When these two figures in the supply chain were added together, there was still going to be a shortfall of 120,000 horses - and this would have to be met by impressment.
Above: Unloading horses from the Caledonia for the 1st Battalion Cameronians at Le Havre. (Imperial War Museum)
Above: A veterinary facility in France
Thankfully, by August 1914 the Army had already created a thorough Horse Mobilisation Scheme that recognised the three crucial elements required for success: organisation, supply, and care. It was a process that had started in the latter part of the 19th century and taken a huge step forward with the creation of a unified Army Veterinary Department in 1881, followed by a Remount Department and Horse Registration Scheme in 1887.
These changes enabled the military to cope with the colossal expansion of the service required for war in 1914 – from finding the right personnel (such as vets, handlers and trainers, blacksmiths and farriers, grooms, and storemen),to sourcing equipment and feed(nose bags, blankets, harnesses, saddles, shoes, fodder etc)and establishing the necessary remount depots, veterinary hospitals, and transportation.
Above: Commandeering Railway horses at Bexhill early WW1. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
The military horses themselves would come from the nation’s working horse population and domestic horse breeding industry. In the event of a major conflict foreign markets such as North America were also used.
With regards to the more contentious issue of impressment of horses from civilian and business ownership, a purchasing scheme had been set up and trialled in 1913 and by April 1914 it was stated “that we were ready”.
The purchasing officers were generally retired officers, country gentlemen and Masters of Hounds, and civilian veterinary surgeons often carried out the work of inspection.
Impressment was never going to be evenly spread across horse owners and businesses. Light draught horses and riding horses were in great demand for transport, cavalry, and the artillery; whereas the number of heavy draught horses required on mobilisation was an insignificant proportion of those available in the country so their withdrawal would not have any serious consequences.
Above: An emotive sketch by Dudley Tennant showing an elegant woman being forced to let go off her ‘old friend’ by military purchasers. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
Above: A cartoon by Lawson Wood of two soldiers taking away a little boy’s toy horse, much to his obvious distress. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
As might be expected, newspapers were quick to highlight ‘outrages’ of military purchasers taking treasured family pets and horses vital to their owner’s livelihoods, and it was a theme that provided rich pickings for cartoons and sketches in popular periodicals.
It is undoubtedly true that some overzealous soldiers impressed horses that were too old, unfit and favourite pets, but a number of these were subsequently returned. The horse of carrier Henry Mills in Oxfordshire, for example, was impressed and then returned as being too old.
Typical reports, such as that in a Western Super Mare newspaper, refer to ASC teams seizing horses from the shafts of carts and carriages in the streets - an action which would have been rare, if not highly unlikely.
Above: The Mills’ horse that was impressed and then returned as too old.
The family bakery and confectionary business of E.J. Bird and Son, of Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, is typical of many family stories handed down from the period: the family owned six horses for delivering bread and all were said to have been commandeered to serve in France. However, inspection of the records shows that only two were taken and replacements for those quickly found.
Stories like those of Bird and Son had impact, but evidence presented to the House of Commons suggested strongly that mobilisation was generally being completed with minimal disruption.
It was clearly in the interests of the war effort, Government and War Office to ensure that domestic, economic, and agricultural life was not badly disrupted, and the evidence available to modern researchers shows that they were mindful of that fact – indeed, it has been estimated that in total only about 17 per cent of the working horse population of the country was mobilised for military purposes during the whole of the war.
The achievement of the military planners in ensuring that the British Expeditionary Force headed to France in the late summer of 1914 with 152,000 horses -an increase of 700 per cent from the day war was announced - and then continued to find fresh supplies of suitable animals, train, transport and care for them, is nothing less than remarkable.
Original research and article by Graham Winton. Edited by Dr Martin Purdy